Russia's Perplexing Iranian Strategy

In public, Vladimir Putin is backing up Tehran. Is something else going on behind the scenes?

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He is a hard man to figure out, to be sure. Over the past few weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has fired off a memorable series of comments that, put together, seem all but a declaration of independence from the U.S.-led strategy of pressuring Iran into shutting down its disputed nuclear program. Before and during a historic trip to Tehran last week, he seemed determined to distinguish his approach from that of President Bush. All that would seem to bode poorly for the diplomatic track to which the administration says it remains committed.

And yet, even as he was publicly dissing U.S. policy and promoting friendly ties and expanded Russia-Iran trade, Putin may have been doing some squeezing of his own in private. Moscow appears to be trying to reformulate its role into that of a mediator or go-between of sorts in the stalemate over Iran's nuclear programs. Such a role could, at times, appear outwardly accommodating, even flattering, to Tehran while it injects quieter pressures of its own on Iran to change course.

The emergence of a more active Russian diplomacy with Iran—particularly one decidedly standoffish from the Bush administration—could complicate U.S. efforts at the United Nations Security Council to clamp down on Tehran with more sanctions until it agrees to suspend its nuclear fuel work, which U.S. and European officials suspect is intended to develop the capacity for making nuclear bombs. Tehran says its plans are to generate electricity and conduct peaceful research.

At the same time, the new Russian activism has a chance to shake up the prospects for moving Tehran back to the negotiating table—after it suspends, at least temporarily, its nuclear activities. U.S. officials are closely following Putin's statements and talking with Russian diplomats in an effort to clarify Putin's intentions and strategy. Some suspect that behind his remarks on Iran lie some diplomatic efforts that could prove useful.

From the Bush administration's perspective, Putin's disconcerting remarks on Iran began on October 10 when, after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy—a proponent of more sanctions on Iran—he argued that "we have no real data to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans." The Bush administration is convinced that that is precisely what Iran is doing, following years of Iranian concealment of nuclear activities and unwillingness to clear up some key questions on its atomic equipment. After Putin's assertion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a point of referring to "an Iranian history of obfuscation and indeed lying."

When Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Putin and other Russian officials the next day, he kept them waiting and publicly chided them on a Europe-based missile defense plan. The Russians repeated their opposition to further Iran sanctions for now and said they see the Iran issue differently.

A couple of days later in Germany, where he met Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin criticized the U.S.-led squeeze strategy and, by implication, rumors of possible future military action. "Intimidating anyone—in this case, the Iranian leadership or the Iranian people—will make no sense," he said. "They are not afraid, believe me."

Then, at a Caspian Sea-area summit in Tehran—where he became the first top Soviet or Russian leader to visit since Josef Stalin in 1943—Putin ruled out supporting any military strikes on Iran. "We should not even think of making use of force in this region," he said. The Russian leader's visit was hailed inside Iran as a significant boost for a government that has been widely criticized from overseas and formally sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

Just last week, Putin deployed his most colorful language to date to slam the sweeping U.S. sanctions targeting parts of Iran's military establishment, including the Revolutionary Guards, and several Iranian banks. "Why make the situation worse, bring it to a dead end, threaten sanctions or even military action?" he asked. "It's not the best way to resolve the situation by running around like a madman with a razor blade in his hand."