From Mark N. Katz
After months of seemingly fruitless effort, the Obama administration suddenly appears to have made progress both on improving Russian-American relations and on resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. After the Obama administration announced that it would not implement the Bush administration’s plan to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic aimed at protecting Europe from Iranian missiles—a plan strenuously opposed by Moscow—Russian President Medvedev recently suggested that Moscow might go along with tougher sanctions on Iran for not cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Security Council on its nuclear program.
Further, at the P-5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva, Tehran has agreed to send “most” of the uranium that it has enriched to Russia in order to be converted into “desperately needed material for a medical research reactor in Tehran” (so reported the Washington Post). There have even been reports that Washington and Moscow are pushing Israel to cooperate with the IAEA, sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and give up its nuclear arsenal in order to create a Middle East nuclear-free zone that Iran would agree to be part of.
There may be far less here, though, than meets the eye. Instead of the advent of Russian and Iranian cooperation with the United States, what we may be witnessing instead is a limited convergence of Russian-American interests along with Iran making a show of cooperating with both Washington and Moscow in order to divide them.
Some in the West see Moscow’s willingness to consider increased sanctions against Iran now as a concession to Washington in return for canceling the BMD deployment plan for Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russian press, though, has claimed that Moscow’s agreement to allow the United States to transport lethal materiel to Afghanistan via Russian airspace was the Kremlin’s reward to Obama for canceling the East European BMD deployments, and that Russia is not altering its policy toward Iran at America’s behest.
Moscow would prefer that Tehran not acquire nuclear weapons, and could hardly ignore the American announcement that Iran has another enrichment facility in the vicinity of Qom that it had not declared to the IAEA (as it is bound to do). Moscow’s willingness to convert Iran’s enriched uranium, though, is not a break with past Russian policy. Indeed, Vladimir Putin has for several years offered to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through Russia providing all the uranium enrichment services that Iran needs for an atomic energy program (performing the enrichment through a “joint venture” either in Russia, Iran, or possibly somewhere else). If both America and Iran accepted this proposal, Russia’s importance to both would be greatly enhanced: America would be reliant upon Russia to make sure Iran did not acquire weapons-grade uranium, and Iran would be dependent on Russia for restraining America vis-a-vis Tehran.
But while the Bush administration appeared willing to accept such a solution in the past, Tehran always responded that while it was willing to acquire some enriched uranium from Russia, it also insisted on enriching some of its own—which is exactly what is unacceptable to Washington and others. It was partly Putin’s frustration with Tehran for not fully adopting his solution to the nuclear issue that appears to have triggered Russian support for previous UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.
Of course, when Moscow did vote in favor of sanctions, the Iranian press denounced Russia in the bitterest terms for—once again—being willing to betray Iran in order to curry favor with America. Russian officials and commentators would then attempt to appease Tehran by claiming that Moscow had actually helped Iran by watering down the much harsher penalties that America and Britain had wanted to impose on it.
Something similar could occur this time as well. Tehran’s uncertainty about whether Moscow really might seriously cooperate with America in imposing harsher Security Council sanctions against it this time may well have motivated Iran to let Russia convert “most” (but not all) of its enriched uranium, in the expectation that Moscow will point to this “increased” Iranian cooperation as reason to delay imposing new sanctions against Tehran as well as watering down those already in place. Unlike the United States, which does not do much business with Iran, Russia has important economic stakes there, which it hopes to increase. While Moscow doesn’t want Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons, it doesn’t want to impose sanctions that would damage Russian economic interests in Iran either. What Russia wants, then, is to cooperate just enough with the United States to convince Washington that it is working with it responsibly (and perhaps obtain some concession for doing so) while at the same time preserving its important relationship with Iran.
And as for Russia encouraging Israel to cooperate with the IAEA, sign the NPT, and give up its nuclear weapons: Moscow could hardly do otherwise at a time when the Obama administration has intensified the longstanding U.S. call for Israel to do all these things. But perhaps unlike some in the Obama administration, Moscow knows full well that Israel is highly unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Israel’s position, then, allows Moscow to argue that Iran cannot be expected to make progress on nuclear disarmament unless Israel does. Israel’s likely refusal to do so, then, is a convenient excuse for Moscow not to seriously join with the United States to push Iran on this.
The Obama administration is trying to get Iran, Russia, and Israel to all change their policies. But while Iran, Russia, and Israel do not like one another’s policies, none of them is willing to change its own. Because of the way that these three governments interact with one another as well as with the United States, it is highly likely that Iran, Russia, and Israel will each continue to pursue its preferred policies and thus frustrate the Obama administration’s efforts to get them to change them. Despite press reports to the contrary, then, Russian-American relations—insofar as the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned—are not likely to improve, and the Iranian nuclear issue is not likely to be resolved as a result of the Obama administration’s current diplomatic initiatives.
Comments are limited to MESH members and invitees.
One Response to “Has Russia shifted on Iran?”