Yet again, U.S. officials, Western media, and various “experts” are telling us that Russia is finally coming on board for really tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities. See, the latest media report on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “joining forces” with President Obama on the need for tougher sanctions against Iran here.
Frankly, we’ve lost count of how many times U.S. officials, across the Clinton, George W. Bush, and, now, Obama Administrations, have claimed that, this time, Russia is really on board for severe sanctions against Iran. With the inauguration of Barack Obama at the beginning of this year, some observers speculated that America’s “smart lawyer” President would find a soulmate in his newly installed and relatively liberal (by Russian standards) counterpart. Many more commentators continue to trot out tired arguments about how Russia’s interests overlap with America’s with respect to not wanting Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, so, if the United States adopted a “smarter” Russia policy than that pursued by President George W. Bush, Moscow would eventually come around to the American position on sanctioning the Islamic Republic. For this camp, Obama’s self-proclaimed interest in hitting the “reset button” with Moscow will surely facilitate closer Russian-American cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue.
It is remarkable how such shallow analysis—fundamentally at odds with observed reality in multiple ways—continues to have considerable traction in public discussions of Iran policy in the West. First of all, the Obama Administration’s efforts to hit the “reset button” with Moscow have not been all that adroit, particularly with Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton popping up regularly to offer various anti-Russian statements, in contrast to President Obama’s somewhat more disciplined approach to the English language (which may be why Obama has found it necessary to have five of his own meetings with Medvedev over the past ten months). More importantly, as Dmitri Simes and Paul Saunders pointed out recently, “neither Barack Obama’s charm nor appeals to common interests will persuade Russia’s unsentimental leaders”. In particular, Russia’s posture toward the Islamic Republic is shaped by calculations about important economic, political, and strategic interests; these calculations are not going to shift dramatically simply because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin allowed Medvedev to take custody of the Kremlin keys.
What interests shape Russia’s Iran policy? Most immediately, Moscow clearly attaches a high priority to keeping the Iranian nuclear issue in the United Nations Security Council—where, as a permanent member, Russia has considerable influence—because it is the only forum where Russia can at least potentially constrain U.S. unilateral action. Largely for this reason, Moscow has supported three sanctions resolutions against Iran over its nuclear activities since 2006. (These resolutions are available under “Key Documents” on this site.)
However, on every one of these resolutions, Russia pushed back hard against British, French, and U.S. drafts to ensure that only narrowly focused measures (e.g., asset freezes and travel restrictions) targeting individuals and entities directly linked to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs were authorized. By doing this, Moscow made sure that multilateral sanctions authorized by the Security Council would not impede Russia’s pursuit of important longer-term economic, political, and strategic interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. Among these longer-term interests are selling nuclear and other high technology items and military systems to Iran, cooperating with Tehran to contain the spread of Sunni extremism in Russia’s sphere of influence, and working with the Islamic Republic to weaken America’s strategic position in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Moscow may well end up supporting another Security Council resolution expanding the existing sanctions regime against Iran—giving just enough to keep the United States from taking the issue out of the Council and forging a “coalition of the willing” or of the “like-minded”. Beyond its interest in keeping the Iranian nuclear file in the Security Council, Moscow is not happy with Tehran’s ambivalent reaction to a proposal that Russia helped to develop and advance, to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor using a significant portion of Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Conversations with Russian officials suggest that Moscow may also be looking for ways to show displeasure with alleged Iranian slowness in making payments for various weapons purchases and (perhaps) on the Bushehr nuclear reactor project.
Furthermore, while Russia does not want to see a military confrontation between the United States (or Israel) and Iran, Moscow also does not want to see an overly rapid rapprochement between the United States (or Europe) and Iran. Among other considerations, Russian policymakers and the leadership of Gazprom are keen to prevent head-to-head competition between Russian and Iranian gas, especially in Europe.
These considerations notwithstanding, it remains highly unlikely that Russia will support proposals from the United States and its European partners to go beyond exclusively proliferation-focused sanctions and target key sectors of Iran’s economy. To do so would put important Russian interests—including access to the Iranian market for high technology and military goods, strategic cooperation with Tehran, and the prospect that Gazprom and other Russian energy companies could develop upstream positions inside Iran. The bottom line: whether with regard to prospects for Russian cooperation, prospects for Chinese cooperation, or the likely impact of additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic itself, the Obama Administration remains attached to a delusional sanctions policy.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett