Russia's President Vladimir Putin is paying a historic visit today to Iran to re-launch the stalled nuclear talks and give new dynamics to bilateral ties. President Putin becomes the first foreign leader to visit Tehran after the inauguration of Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rohani, on August 3. It is also the first ever bilateral visit by a Russian leader to Iran President. Putin visited Iran in 2007 for an international conference on the Caspian Sea and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin visited Tehran in 1943 for a World War Two summit among the allies, Soviet Union, United States and Britain.
This time around, President Putin is expected to discuss Iran's controversial nuclear programme, construction of new reactors at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant built with Russian assistance, and new arms deal. President Putin will offer to replace the cancelled shipment of Iran S-300PMU-1 surface-to-air missiles with similar long-range air defence system VM Antey-2500, also known as S-300VM. Russia scrapped the deal in 2010 after the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran
Moscow has six core goals regarding Iran: supporting nonproliferation, preventing war or regime change, maintaining regional security, minimizing sanctions, ensuring diplomatic leverage, and advancing energy and economic cooperation. However, the relative priority of these objectives depends on the situation.
Russian officials oppose Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, but not because they fear a near-term Iranian attack. Rather, they are concerned for the health of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a time when many potential proliferators can be found near Russia. Additionally, NATO countries cite Iran’s nuclear and missile activities to justify their missile defense programs, which Moscow perceives as undermining its nuclear deterrent capability.
They also worry that Israel and the United States will use military force against Iran should the nuclear issue not be resolved diplomatically. A major war could encourage Islamist extremism in the Caucasus and lead to unpredictable regime change in Tehran. This could result in a more radical or a more pro-Western Iranian government, either of which could harm Moscow’s interests. A conflict would likely boost Russian oil and gas prices, generating windfall profits, but Russian territory is uncomfortably close to Iran. Russians might also fear that Iranian nuclear material could find its way into the hands of Islamist terrorists in the event of conflict or regime destabilization in Iran.
More broadly, the Kremlin wants some of Iran’s policies to change but not its regime. Russian officials would prefer that Tehran’s anti-Western policies continue, not necessarily because Moscow favors Iran’s positions, but because Iranian-Western frictions leave Russia—and China—as Iran’s main great power partners. The tensions also dampen Iranian support for Western-sponsored trans-Caspian energy pipelines and boost world energy prices by limiting Iran’s oil and gas exports.
Since the Soviet breakup, Russia and Iran have cooperated on important regional security matters. During the 1990s, the two countries worked together to end the civil war in Tajikistan, support opponents of the Afghan Taliban and counter Turkey’s influence in Central Asia. In addition, Tehran refused to support Muslim guerrillas in Chechnya or the armed Islamist movements fighting in other parts of Russia. At present, Russia and Iran are the Syrian government’s primary backers. In future, Russian and Iranian security interests could overlap in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
It is true that, since the revelations a decade ago of Iran’s massive covert nuclear program, the Russian government has applied pressure to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities, including by deliberately delaying construction of Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr and backing several United Nations resolutions sanctioning Tehran. However, Russian officials have opposed “crippling” sanctions, claiming such measures would be counterproductive and that moderating Iranian nuclear ambitions requires making Tehran’s external environment less threatening.
Instead of more sanctions, they call for enhanced dialogue between Washington and Tehran as well as other cooperative measures to moderate Iranian behavior. Although Russian officials cite humanitarian and tactical considerations, they also want to avoid harming Russian business interests in Iran.
Economic ties between Russia and Iran are marginal given the size of the two countries’ economies. However, two influential groups, Russian nuclear and defense firms, profit considerably from Iran’s purchase of Russia’s nuclear technology and weapons. Meanwhile, Russian firms benefit from Iran’s alienation from Western markets. These narrow interests can sometimes outweigh Russia’s general interests in nonproliferation and good relations with the West.
Russian diplomats also need to maintain ties with Tehran to position Moscow as a mediator between Iran and the West, thereby encouraging both Western and Iranian officials to curry favor with Moscow through concessions on other issues. Both the Bush and Obama administrations characterized Russia as a possible partner in controlling Iran’s nuclear activities. Nevertheless, Russia has refrained from joining the Obama administration in any joint initiative to pressure Iran, in part because doing so would underscore Moscow’s limited influence in Tehran.
In fact, Moscow has found it as difficult as anyone else to deal with the clerical regime. Ideological differences, historical animosities and lack of trust in each other’s commitments combine to make neither party fully comfortable relying on the other. Iranians decry Russia’s limited support for Iranian nuclear ambitions, seen in the lengthy delays in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor; Russians’ reluctance to supply Iran with modern weapons, as highlighted by the cancellation of a contract for S-300 advanced air defense missile systems; and past instances when Moscow sacrificed Iranian interests in perceived pursuit of Russia’s agenda in Europe. Russians are annoyed that their past opposition to sanctions has not induced more Iranian gratitude.
Seeking to make the best of this situation, the Russian government exploits this distrust to keep Iranians cautious about overly annoying Moscow. Supporting some sanctions also sends the message that Russia could make Iranians’ lives more difficult if necessary. While Russians publicly denounce sanctions imposed unilaterally by Western governments above and beyond U.N. sanctions, they might privately welcome them since they enhance Moscow’s leverage. Russian diplomats can say they saved Iran from more serious sanctions but might not be able to do so for long if Tehran does not moderate its behavior.
Most Russian policymakers probably join other countries’ officials in rejoicing at Ahmadinejad’s departure. His policies strained Russian-Iranian ties, and his domestic unpopularity and extremist rhetoric complicated Russia’s mediation efforts. Yet, Rouhani’s desire to reduce Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation could lead to reconciliation between Tehran and Washington. For all the reasons outlined above, that is something that Moscow would not welcome.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: Reuters- Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah al-Khamenei (center) gives his endorsement to newly elected President Hassan Rohani (right).