Features | Security | Central Asia

Why Russia Won’t Play Ball on Iran

The U.S. may not agree or even understand Russia’s view on the Iran nuclear issue. But there are many reasons why Russia won’t put too much pressure on Tehran.

By Mark N. Katz for

The Obama Administration has sought to enlist Moscow in the effort to increase pressure on Iran to cooperate with the international community and verifiably renounce any ambitions it might have to acquire nuclear weapons. But while Russia would undoubtedly prefer a non-nuclear to a nuclear Iran, joining the U.S. and its allies in more forcefully sanctioning Iran for not cooperating on this matter involves risks for Moscow that it doesn’t wish to incur.

The geostrategic, economic, and political relations between Russia and Iran are, in a word, complex.  Historically, Russia and Iran have been geostrategic rivals. In the 19th century in particular, Tsarist Russia made gains in both the Caucasus and Central Asia at Iran’s expense. In both the 19th and 20th centuries, Iran often had reason to fear a powerful, encroaching Russia (or Soviet Union) – an important factor underpinning the alliance between the United States and Iran from the end of World War II through the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Even after the Shah’s regime was replaced by the virulently anti-American Islamic Republic, Soviet-Iranian relations remained tense – especially since Tehran regarded both the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89) and Soviet support to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) as highly threatening.

With the end of the war with Iraq and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union itself, Iranian threat perceptions of Russia were greatly reduced.  Underpinned by certain common geostrategic interests, Russian-Iranian relations have been greatly improved since then. First and foremost among these shared interests is a common desire to limit American influence, especially in the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia that became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.  Another geostrategic interest which Moscow and Tehran share is a common fear of radical Sunni Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban which, in addition to being anti-Western, are virulently anti-Russian and anti-Shi’a. Yet another overlapping interest between Russia and Iran is fear and opposition to secessionism, which both states are vulnerable to it.

Russia and Iran also cooperate with each other economically. The overall trade volume between them – which has grown to approximately $4 billion per year – isn’t large. Russia, though, is one of the few arms and atomic reactor manufactures willing and able to sell them to Iran. Similarly, Iran is one of the few customers for arms and atomic reactors willing and able to buy them from Russia. Both consider the continuation of their trade in these items to be a vital interest.

Despite this, Russia and Iran are both petroleum producers with highly competitive interests. For Moscow, U.S.-led economic sanctions efforts against Iran have been both an economic and a geostrategic godsend. The U.S. blockage of the construction of pipeline routes to Iran from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan has meant that these former Soviet states remain heavily reliant on export routes through Russia or countries subject to Russian intimidation (i.e., Georgia). And to the extent that American-led embargo efforts have led to reduced Iranian ability to sell its petroleum on the world market, Moscow has benefited both from higher oil prices as well as the increased need for others to buy Russian oil that this has resulted in.  Moscow has no interest in seeing this situation change.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Finally, it should be noted that while Moscow and Tehran share a common animosity toward the United States, their ability to cooperate against it is limited by the mutual fear that each would gladly sacrifice its relationship with the other in exchange for concessions from the U.S.  The Obama administration’s stated desire to improve relations with Iran when it first took office on the one hand and its continuing efforts to improve relations with Russia so that it “will help us with Iran” on the other have served to arouse suspicion in Moscow and Tehran about how the other might be contemplating a “sell-out” to Washington at its expense.

The reality is that Moscow isn’t as concerned about the prospect of a nuclear Iran as the U.S. and its Western, Arab, and Israeli allies. In Moscow’s (however unfortunate) view, Iran simply may not have the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons. Further, while Moscow doesn’t regard the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons as desirable, it’s far more sanguine about this possibility than America and many of its allies are. However unpleasant the leaders of the Islamic Republic might be, Moscow sees them as (just like the Putin administration) focused primarily on remaining in power and thus unlikely to undertake any actions that could undermine this goal, such as actually using nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Moscow sees Pakistan as far more volatile than Iran, and thus the Pakistani possession of nuclear weapons as being more problematic than Iranian acquisition of them. Ultimately, just as they had to accept and deal with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and North Korea, Moscow anticipates that the international community – including the U.S. – will just have to accept and deal with a nuclear-armed Iran if and when this emerges.

Moscow understands that an important reason why the Obama administration has pursued its “reset” policy aimed at improving Russian-American relations is that it seeks to enlist Moscow’s help in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Moscow, though, sees itself as having very little leverage over Iran on this issue. Putin has on several occasions proposed that the solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis is for Russia to enrich all uranium for Iran (either in Russia, Iran, or a third country), but Tehran has always insisted that it will continue to enrich at least some of its own uranium even if it agrees to cooperate with any of these Russian proposals.  Otherwise, the only positive inducements that Tehran might actually respond to that Moscow can offer are either ones that the United States and its allies would object to (more arms, more nuclear reactors), or ones that both they and Russia itself would oppose (Russian support for the export of Caspian Basin petroleum via Iran).

Moscow could threaten negative sanctions against Iran unless it cooperates on the nuclear issue, or actually impose them for not doing so. The most obvious of these would be to stop watering down and delaying new Security Council economic sanctions on Iran. Other measures might be cutting back, or even ending, Russian arms sales to Iran. Imposing negative sanctions on Iran, though, involves important risks for Moscow. Just because Russia cooperates with the West on Iran doesn’t mean that China will. The Russian imposition of negative sanctions on Iran, then, might simply result in Iran turning more toward (and becoming increasingly dependent on ) Beijing. In addition, Moscow worries about the possibility of Iranian retaliation against Russia for cooperating with the West against Iran on the nuclear issue. Tehran could, for example, end the hopes of Russian firms to invest in the Iranian oil and gas sectors. And while Tehran hasn’t previously supported Chechen and other Muslim opposition groups inside Russia, it could always begin doing so and thus exacerbate the internal security challenges that Moscow faces.

It is, of course, unclear what costs Tehran could actually impose on Moscow for cooperating more fully with the West on the Iranian nuclear issue. Moscow, though, does not wish to find out.

America, Russia and Iran

Moscow views U.S. efforts to get Russia to cooperate with the U.S. and its allies on Iran with deep skepticism and even suspicion. Moscow sees Washington as being well aware that Russia has little leverage over Iran on the nuclear issue and that Tehran could impose significant costs on Russia for cooperating with the West on this. Moscow, then, suspects that Washington is pushing Russia to cooperate with it on the Iranian nuclear issue not because it expects that this will result in Tehran becoming more compliant, but merely because Washington wants to bring about the deterioration of Russian-Iranian relations.

This line of reasoning may seem preposterous to Americans, but not to Russians. This is because, many Russians reason, if Washington truly regarded Russian cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue as being important, then surely the U.S. would offer significant inducements and concessions to Moscow in order to obtain it. Just what these should be might not be clear to Moscow itself, but would at minimum involve the abandonment of America’s ballistic missile defense plans and repeal of the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik restrictions on Russian-U.S. trade that the Kremlin has repeatedly called for. Putin would probably also demand an end to American “interference in Russia’s internal affairs” (i.e., U.S. government criticism about the state of democracy and human rights in Russia) as well as respect for Russia’s “privileged interests (as Medvedev referred to them in 2008) in the former Soviet republics.

Washington might well respond that it shouldn’t have to make any concessions to Moscow in order to obtain its cooperation on this matter since preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons benefits everyone, including Russia. Moscow, though, doesn’t agree, but instead sees only high costs and low benefits from active Russian cooperation with the U.S. on the Iranian nuclear issue. The only way that the U.S. might obtain such cooperation from Moscow is through concessions of such magnitude that Washington would not – indeed, could not – make.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

All this means that any expectation that exists in Washington that Moscow can be persuaded to make a meaningful contribution either to inducing Tehran to cooperate on the nuclear issue or punish it for not doing so is simply misplaced.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).