-Russia is engaging Iran in order to counter US influence in the region
-While Russia is aiding Iran’s civilian nuclear development, it is likely that the Russian government is also wary of Iran’s nuclear intentions
-We can expect Russia to continue to defend Iran in the UN Security Council for the foreseeable future
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran last week, the first visit of a Kremlin head since World War II, is historic, symbolic and complex. President Putin appears to be demonstrating to the West, and specifically the US, that Russia as a major world power can maintain a cordial diplomatic relationship with Iran.
To many in the West, Iran is a pariah because of its human rights record, and nuclear, military and foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East. While President Putin is not a warm friend of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the same manner of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he has managed to engage Iran at the head of state level.
At the same time, Putin is careful not to be seen as pandering to Iran. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy imperatives are to promote a strong Russia and its strategic interests, as well as countering US hegemony in crucial parts of the world.
Iran, Russia and Nuclear Ambitions
The problem Russia faces is that they are playing a dangerous strategic game. A nuclear-armed Iran is a security concern for many states including Russia, due to the destabilizing effects this would have in the region. However, as Iran tries to assert power both regionally and internationally, it has become part of a proxy competition between Russia and the West. Russia has indeed supplied much of the nuclear technology to Iran, which they claim is for legitimate civilian nuclear energy uses. Russia has claimed that there is no real evidence indicating Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
The Russian government is also against imposing further sanctions against Iran in the United Nations (UN) until it has a chance to clear up some issues with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) by the end of the year. It seems that Iran now has an advocate in Russia in the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, it is unlikely that Russia is supporting Iran because they are confident that Iran is not intent on developing nuclear weapons. For now, it is in Russia’s strategic interests to support Iran.
Russia has been helping to build the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran but the project has been plagued by legal and financial difficulties and delays. Iran has claimed Russia is dragging its feet with the project, and Russia claims that Iran is behind with its payments. It seems that the project may now be back on track, and that Russia is trying to keep an eye on Iran’s nuclear activities through such partnerships. However, Iran has been resisting Russia’s offer to supply nuclear fuel.
Diplomacy and Strategy
Russia can also take the high road diplomatically by claiming that direct negotiation with Iran, something the US is not currently pursuing would be a prudent strategy concerning the nuclear issue. They can claim that they are at least willing to work with Iran, albeit for their own reasons. Putin also declared that peaceful nuclear activities of states should be allowed, and also cautioned against using force against Iran, a not so veiled reference to US concerns over Iran.
Russia is also trying to improve regional cooperation to counter US influence in the region—Iran is a lynchpin of this policy. Forming deeper ties with Iran is one of Putin’s stated objectives and making such an historic visit despite claims of an alleged assassination plot against Putin is a public demonstration of this commitment.
President Putin also attended a summit of Caspian Sea nations (Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) where members signed a declaration stating that peaceful nuclear energy should be allowed and that no state should allow their territory to be used for aggression or military action against another member. This second statement is a direct move to stave off any potential US thinking on using a surrounding state to support any military action against Iran.
In addition, Russia is also trying to deny one of the US motivations for a missile shield system in Europe (Previous Report). Russia scoffs at the notion that Iranian missiles could hit Europe, hence the US justification for such a system, which may also threaten Russian interests, is based on an inherently false premise.
Finally, energy projects such as pipelines in the region could also keep Russia interested in regional cooperation with Iran, and a way to keep Western energy interests out.
It is likely that Russia will continue to engage Iran strategically and economically even of they do no trust the intentions of the government. As long as they continue this effort, it is likely they will continue to have influence in the region and remain adversarial in UN Security Council discussions.