Russia’s Iran Strategy

Another piece that I wrote for Oxford Analytica has been picked up (in edited form) by CNN. Here’s the repost.

In response to Tehran’s announcement of advances in its civilian nuclear capabilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 15 urged the international community to re-engage Iran in serious negotiations, with the aim of forestalling the development of a credible nuclear weapons program. While Russia is often portrayed as uncritically supportive of Iran, the bilateral relationship is more complicated than it appears.

Most Russian corporates have complied with international sanctions, which have made it difficult for multinationals to pursue opportunities in Iran. Large contracts have been repeatedly called off or postponed. Yet economic cooperation, especially in the civilian aviation, telecom and hydrocarbons sectors, remains significant.

While Iran used to be one of Russia’s leading defense industry customers, this relationship has almost completely collapsed in the wake of President Dmitry Medvedev’s September 2010 decision to ban sales of missile systems, armored vehicles, warplanes, helicopters and ships to Iran. This went beyond the U.N.-mandated sanctions. Since then, Russian military sales have been limited to equipment needed to modernize previously transferred anti-aircraft defense systems and electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems.

While bilateral ties have been periodically difficult, Moscow is well aware of Iran’s important geopolitical role – not just in the Middle East, but also Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian leaders have long believed that protests such as the 2009 Green Movement could destabilize a great many states in Russia’s ‘south’, and this view has only been confirmed by the ‘Arab awakenings’. They also fear that an Israeli strike on Iran would be the first step in a regional conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East and generate massive refugee flows into Russia via Azerbaijan. At the same time, Russian policymakers are also concerned about the possibility of Iran creating instability on Russia’s southern border, especially in light of difficult relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Russian military planners recently announced that next autumn’s large-scale military exercise would take place in the Caucasus and involve the premise of a war that begins with an attack on Iran, but turns into a regional conflict that draws in Russia.

Russian leaders believe that Iran already has the technical ability and materials to build a nuclear weapon should it choose to do so. For this reason, it opposes the use of air strikes (or other military means) to damage the Iranian nuclear program. The logic is that while military strikes would certainly set back the program in the short term, they would only reinforce Iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon in order to deter potential future attacks. From Russia’s perspective, negotiations are thus the only means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.

Russia would like to see a comprehensive agreement, whereby Tehran agrees to stop its nuclear weapons program in return for the end of sanctions and reintegration of Iran into the international community. Should Iran make the first aggressive move by following through on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Russia will benefit in the short term from higher oil prices. However, this would be more than off-set by a subsequent intensification of regional instability. Over the longer term, Russia would be best served by stable oil prices, not extremely high ones.

4 thoughts on “Russia’s Iran Strategy

  1. There is no credible evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program… I mean other that political rumour and innuendo from the US and Israel.

    Both sources periodically make press releases about Irans nuclear weapons program and about how they have credible proof, but they never reveal that proof publicly or to the IAEA or UNSC, so in the end it is all just really bluff.

    The Current sanctions are all based on this bluff.

    Unlike Israel, Iran has followed the rules and has signed the nonproliferation treaty and as such is ENTITLED to civilian nuclear technology.

    The fact that they want to be able to control the process from getting the Uranium out of the ground to making their own fuel is no great surprise.

    Can anyone wonder or be suspicious about their requirements to be independent of a world that is so quick to impose economic sanctions without evidence of proof they are doing anything wrong. Especially when the two main accusers are the US and Israel… the country with the worlds largest reserve of nuclear weapons and the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons in war, and a country that refused to sign the NPT yet is so keen to keep pressure on Iran, who has so far followed the rules.

    Even US intelligence believes the Irans have no current nuclear weapons program, yet the sanctions and the bullying makes one wonder why they haven’t got one.

    But that is hardly a reason to impose crippling economic sanctions on them.

    This reminds me of the book 1984 by George Orwell… Iran is guilty of thought crimes! They actually haven’t done anything wrong… in fact they have followed the correct path, unlike Israel.

    In the 1990s several reported Russian military deals with Iran were stopped by Israeli and US pressure… and for what? The West still thinks Russia are the bad guys that support Iran anyway.

    The point is that Russia can abandon all its allies because the west still doesn’t like them, but will find few new allies amongst its old enemies and rivals that the west has befriended.

    The result of “stopping supporting dictators and terrorists” might result in the west being less critical of Russia, but it will cost Russia most of its export customers and former allies.

    The reality is that Russia does not have a political agenda to push anymore.

    It has good relations with countries that really don’t like the west… and mostly don’t like the west for good reason.

    If the west had any brains it would encourage Russia to remain friends with places like Cuba and Iran and Myanma and even North Korea, because friends have more leverage than enemies and if Russia can talk to the enemies of the west and negotiate agreements then the West wont need to spend so much on invasions… which are expensive and often counterproductive in the end.

    Unfortunately the west does not have brains and thinks the world is not perfect till the world is like them.

    Russia does not need to spread communism, it just needs to do business, and I don’t mean oil company… go in there and steal the oil and don’t care about the mess and kill everyone who gets in the way and bribe the rest. I mean proper business that benefits both parties and helps both to grow and if not get rich, then at least improve their living standards and future.

  2. Very informative piece, Dmitry. A few questions, though:

    “Russian leaders have long believed that protests such as the 2009 Green Movement could destabilize a great many states in Russia’s ‘south’, and this view has only been confirmed by the ‘Arab awakenings’.”

    Does this mean that their concerns about a revolutionary wave are more about the Near Abroad than Russia itself?

    “From Russia’s perspective, negotiations are thus the only means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.”

    It always seems to be implicitly assumed that Russia would prefer a non-nuclear Iran. Why?

  3. @GarryB
    well spoken and with well balanced arguments Mr. GarryB.
    You have ruined usual Western propaganda pattern (on Iran) in this article (among other good arguments you have said).

    I would go rather to your blog (if you would have one) to get less biased perspective on all non-Western countries.

    I am so tired to read again and again the same judgmental, mediocre parroting of Washington’s propaganda all over the Internet…

    Your words sums up whole problem in one sentence;

    “Unfortunately the west does not have brains and thinks the world is not perfect till the world is like them”

    You have my respect Mr. GarryB.

  4. Pingback: Universul ! Ia Universul ! | tre3i

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