Why Russia Won’t Budge On Iran

No matter who is in the White House next year, the United States will continue to diverge from Russia on Iran policy.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shake hands during their meeting in Beijing, Thursday, June 7, 2012. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Beijing for a regional security conference that included allies China and Russia, both part of the nuclear talks.

Cory Bender is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

Russia is no friend of Iran. Since Vladimir Putin's first term as president, the once-amicable relations between Moscow and Tehran have degraded sharply. Russia and Iran, previously united by their shared Eurasian identity, are now mired in a marriage of unembellished convenience. Iran, the Russians might tell you, is too refractory, too missionary, too fundamentalist in an age when militant Islam threatens to shatter Russia's territorial integrity. More importantly, as Iran has divorced itself from mainstream international politics, it has become a liability for Moscow.

With this in mind, a few clever diplomatic demarches should let the United States breach the Russo-Iranian axis, depriving Tehran of one if its last sponsors. That, at least, was part of the thinking when President Barack Obama orchestrated his "reset" with Russia back in 2009.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

But, nearly four years later, a Russo-Iranian split hasn't materialized. Russia certainly has let its frustration with Iran be felt at times, and has scrupulously observed an arms embargo and allowed multiple rounds of sanctions through the Security Council (albeit in watered-down form). And yet, the breadth of Russian cooperation on Iran has left most in Washington unsatisfied. The political cost imposed on Washington by the Russians for every round of sanctions has been significant, Russian diplomats roundly criticize U.S. policy, and Russia continues to provide key assistance to Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor. In other words, notwithstanding the administration's opening to Moscow, Russia has yet to significantly change course on Iran.

Nor is it likely to in the near future, unfortunately. That is because Moscow, now more than ever guided by cold realism instead of lofty idealism in its foreign policy, still sees practical benefit in its cooperation with Tehran.

First, while Russia does not want a nuclear Iran, it certainly is more sanguine about such a possibility than is the West. Russian leaders see their Iranian counterparts as rational actors who want nuclear weapons for deterrence rather than usage, and dismiss the anti-Semitic warmongering of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as mere rhetoric.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Second, Iran has much more leverage over Russia than it does over the United States. The region of Russia closest to Iran is an Islamist hornet's nest, and Tehran can easily stir it up. Until now, Iran has acquiesced to Russia's wars in the North Caucasus. But it could quickly change tack, and exacerbate the already-grave insurgency that challenges the security of the Russian state.

Third, and most importantly, Russia fiercely competes with China for influence in Tehran, and fears that if it abandons Iran, China will simply step into the breach. This is more than simply conjecture: In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, Russian trade with Iran stood at $4.2 billion, while Chinese trade with Iran was more than $30 billion. In 2011, the latter had grown to more than $40 billion. Russia hoped that as sanctions whittled down Iran's trade options, Tehran would lean on Moscow for support. Instead, it has increasingly courted Beijing. Russian fears of Chinese strategic competition are palpable, and letting Iran slip away would be an unconscionable blow to Russia's international standing.

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The result is that the price of substantive Russian support is too high. Per Russian reasoning, if Washington was serious about Iran, it would make all manner of costly concessions—from curtailing congressional human rights legislation (the so-called "Magnitsky Bill") to aborting its plans for missile defense in Europe. Such steps, however, are utterly unacceptable for the United States.

All of that leaves Moscow and Washington worlds apart on the Iran issue, a state of affairs which no attempt at rapprochement can change. That bleak reality will prevail irrespective of who occupies the White House after November.

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