Putin in Tehran: Can Russia Still Play a Constructive Role in the Struggle to Contain Iran?

While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was doing her best—against the odds—to find a form of words that could save the proposed summit in Annapolis, the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, was on a very different mission. His visit to Iran, to attend a gathering of the Kaspian Basin nations, is being described as the first of its kind by a Moscow leader since Joseph Stalin came to Tehran in 1943 (for a fateful wartime summit with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt); and this historical memory raises troubling questions.

Is this a step toward the emergence of a “post-New World Order,” with the prospect (recently discussed in an incisive article in Foreign Affairs by an Israeli professor of military history, Azar Gat) of the authoritarian powers—Russia and China—challenging American and democratic hegemony, and lining up allies among the new axis of resistance—Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, and others? Are we sliding into a new Cold War, made more dangerous by the volatile nature of the Middle East once Iran plunges it into an overt nuclear arms race?

Such nightmarish visions are not the only possible outcome—although we do need to be on alert against this emerging trend. For years, Russia had somewhat less grandiose reasons for keeping Iran happy, even at the cost of letting the present leadership there fend off the pressures to desist from enriching uranium. On a daily basis, the Iranian link provided first Boris Yeltsin, then Putin, with specific motivations:

  • An opportunity to keep the prowling Islamist movements away from the doors of Russia’s fragile southern approaches, with their many small nationalities, mostly Muslim by faith. This was largely achieved by conciliating Tehran. It was Saudi money, not Iranian, that fed the Chechen rebellion; after some early post-Soviet skirmishes in the Nagorno-Badakhshan civil war in Tajikistan, Iran desisted from all efforts to subvert the post-Soviet Russian Federation or what Moscow calls “the near abroad.”
  • A strong economic incentive: For industries long starved of their old markets, the opportunity to provide Iran with billions in nuclear infrastructure (at Bushehr and elsewhere) and arms and other supplies, as well as to coordinate energy policies (again, with the Saudis as the common competitor) was a significant factor.
  • A point of contention with the West, and with the U.S. in particular, which could serve to demonstrate that Russia was a powerful and independent player in international affairs: in sense, a way of reflecting the long years of frustration—over NATO expansion and a range of other issues—that have left Russian policy-makers bitter and sometimes vindictive.

Powerful motives, one and all, but not so powerful as to outweigh other considerations and incentives, had such been offered to the Russian leadership consistently and over time (which was not the case). Iran, after all, is not the beginning and the end of Russian policy and diplomacy. A real Russian role at the world’s high table, at least as an effective member of the G-8, and if possible, of an even smaller circle of recognized great powers; a balanced, interdependent relationship with Europe (particularly the German economy); and above all, a halt to the eastward march of NATO and the EU—all may matter more to Moscow.

The present attitudes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his likes, moreover, have awakened Russian worries. At the St. Petersburg G-8 summit during the Lebanon War in 2006, to the surprise (and delight) of Israeli diplomacy, a high level of unanimity was achieved—for a while—condemning Hezbollah’s provocation and, in effect, giving Israel an unprecedented degree of backing against an Iranian proxy. The momentum that this understanding generated was not maintained, however: Russia did sign onto UN Security Council Resolutions 1737 (December 23, 2006) and 1747 (March 24, 2007), imposing limited sanctions on Iran, but as the stakes began to rise—and the Iranian regime found a way to manipulate international reactions through clever half-measures offered to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—Russia, accompanied by China, slid again toward their familiar role as a spoiler. Putin’s present trip reflects this shift. From his perspective, there is simply not enough on offer to persuade Russia to join the U.S.—and France—in taking sanctions to a much higher and more dangerous level: There is more to be gained by playing an open-ended game with both sides.

This could be a disastrous turning point, but it does not have to be. If the Iranian leadership persists in its present, defiant course, even Russia might come—next month, or somewhat later—to the conclusion that further sanctions are inevitable. The key question now at stake is the suspension of uranium enrichment—and not just the notion, advanced by the IAEA, of placing this ongoing activity under supervision. It is vital that Russia, at least, not slide away from this basic requirement. As long as Iran has not reversed course on this, it would be highly dangerous to provide the Russian-built nuclear reactor in Bushehr (even if construction is completed there) with nuclear fuel, which in a time of crisis Iran could divert to other purposes. It is on this issue, above all, that Russian attitudes will be tested and a powerful signal sent to the Iranian political and economic elites. The latter have already taken notice of the ongoing delay in the supply of nuclear fuel, and have come to see it as a sign of trouble. There should be more such signs of delegitimation of the present regime and its nuclear (and regional) policies.

Another challenge is to dissuade Russia—as has recently been suggested by the American administration—from gaining industrial contracts, financial services, and terms of trade by stepping in to inherit U.S. or European corporations that are now leaving Iran (in growing numbers) in obedience to the sanctions. The short-term gains may be tempting for many in Moscow, but the long-term results, undermining the efforts to achieve a nonviolent solution, could be tragic.

This, indeed, is the point that Moscow should come to understand—and, indeed, may still do so, even after the Tehran visit, if the message is clearly and decisively delivered. For Russia (and, to some extent, China) the choice is between three basic courses of action:

  • A full (but frankly, unlikely) return to the model of a united international front, that would be able to carry out fresh and effective UNSC resolutions and quickly corner the Iranian regime;
  • A “semi-detached” position, i.e., continued reluctance to be involved in imposing new sanctions (in which case, Russia would derail further UN resolutions), yet coupled with a policy of restraint when it comes to business with Iran, and in particular, with continued delays on the Bushehr fuel supply. This may be the realistically achievable goal vis-à-vis the Russian leadership at this time—unless the West offers far-reaching concessions on other fronts, such as the future status of Ukraine, which would be the incentive for more coordinated policies.
  • A confrontational mode, in which Iran would become the testing ground for a new balance of power—with the full consequences that might follow, namely, a dangerous narrowing of the range of options for the U.S. and the West (as Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner have already warned).

The course of historical events may yet lead to a new “game of nations.” Russia and China (with India and Japan to complete the Asian elephant path; and some unexpected European permutations in tow) could reinstitute a version of the old and often slippery “balance of power,” glorified in Henry Kissinger’s book Diplomacy, but reviled in many others. But for this to happen now over the Iranian nuclear drive would be both premature and dangerous—not only from an Israeli or American point of view, but in terms of Russia’s own interests. It can only be hoped that in Putin’s sharp calculus—he is certainly the most clear-minded leader in the Kremlin in some years—this realization will override the urge to poke a finger in the West’s collective eye.

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