Is Russia Finally Getting Serious About Iran?

by Michael Crowley | November 24, 2009

In recent weeks, Barack Obama's foreign policy has been derided by critics who say he has almost nothing to show for his first 10 months in office. But on one of his most important priorities--stopping Iran's relentless march towards a nuclear weapon--he may be quietly reaping a critical diplomatic turnaround: Russia may finally be getting serious about Iran's nuclear program.

That would be great news for Obama. In recent weeks Iran has shown little sign of cutting a good-faith deal with the West to freeze its nuclear program. It increasingly looks like the only way to stop Tehran's nuclear ambitions--short of military action with potentially disastrous consequences--will be through harsh sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Of the council's five permanent members, America, Great Britain and France are all ready to proceed. China may be the toughest nut to crack; but that won't matter if Obama can't first bring Russia aboard. (China may also be more reluctant to water down U.N. sanctions without Russia's vote to give it cover.)

For most of this year, Russia seemed skeptical at best of an international full-court press on Tehran. Moscow has plenty of reasons not to gang up on a country with whom it has extensive economic ties. As recently as mid-October, Russia's foreign minister warned that sanctions talk was "counterproductive." 

But the month of November has brought two important developments that indicate a Kremlin that is becoming more an ally than an obstacle in the Iran squeeze. "They're not  at all happy with the Iranians," says Cliff Kupchan, a Russia and Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group. "I think there's been a significant change in Russian policy."

Two recent flare-ups suggest a quickly souring relationship between Moscow and Tehran. The first is the escalating dispute between Russia and Iran over delivery of a potent anti-missile system that could help Iran defend its nuclear facilities from an Israeli attack. An Iranian general lashed out at Moscow today, saying the Kremlin was reneging on a 2007 agreement to send Iran truck-mounted S-300 missiles, which can shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles from a range of 150 kilometers. With Israel capable of striking at any moment, Iran very much wants those missiles as soon as possible. But Russia, at the urging of Jerusalem and Washington--or, as the Iranian general put it, "under the pressure of the Zionist lobby and America"--has now missed its scheduled delivery date by six months, with no sign of completing the deal soon. (It's not likely that Russia, which hasn't publicly explained the delay, wants to make an Israeli air strike any easier--Moscow doesn't welcome the strategic and economic instability such an attack would bring; more likely, the Kremlin understands that shipping the missiles would be a destabilizing move that could prompt a quick Israeli strike before Tehran has time to put the batteries into position.)

The second friction point is a nasty surprise Russia presented to Iran on November 16, when it announced that a nuclear power plant Moscow had been building near the city of Bushehr won't be operational at the end of this year as originally planned. (The Bushehr project was begun by a German company in the 1970s, then abandoned after the 1979 Islamic revolution; Russia signed a 1995 contract to complete it.) Russia is supplying the enriched uranium to fuel the reactor--which, although it will in theory be shipped back after use, can also be turned into bomb material if Iran chooses to renege. Russia claims the delay is technical ("just a few crossed wires, you see; nothing a soldering iron can't fix!)--but hard-liners in the Iranian parliament are accusing Moscow of dishonesty. One told an Iranian news agency that Russia might not complete the plant if given 200 years.

It's also worth nothing the timing of the Bushehr announcement: just one day after Russian president Dmitri Medvedev complained about Iranian dithering in international negotiations over its nuclear program. ("We are running out of time," for diplomacy, Medvedev warned--one of several recent statements from Russian officials indicating growing support for international sanctions.) Specifically, Iran has recently made clear that it will apparently reject a deal brokered in Vienna last month under which Tehran would ship 70 percent of its domestically-enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel that would then be sent to a Tehran plant that makes medical isotopes. The deal was brokered by multiple parties, including the U.S. But some analysts think rejection of such an important diplomatic role for Moscow may prick Russia's national pride.

But don't pour those vodka shots just yet: There's still plenty of reason for skepticism about Russia's ultimate intentions. It's never easy to divine Moscow's true intentions, after all, and some people reasonably suspect Russia of playing both sides in this game--opportunistically positioning itself to line up with whomever seems to be winning the U.S.-Iranian struggle. Vladimir Putin is said to consider international sanctions blunt and ineffective. "I think they are fed up with the Iranians, but don't see sanctions as a useful tool," says James Goldgeier, a Russia expert at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

But others think Iran's halfhearted response to Obama's open hand may truly be changing Russian minds. Moscow may not relish cracking down on its Persian trading partner, but it almost surely doesn't want to see an Israeli attack, either. "The evolving view in Moscow is that additional U.N. sanctions are the worst possible policy--except for any other," Kupchan says.

Early in his presidency, Barack Obama proclaimed that he would seek to "reset" the a strained relationship between Washington and Moscow. He followed through with his surprise decision to scrap a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, which seemed motivated in part to win greater Russian cooperation on Iran. Conservatives called this an American surrender to Russia. But if Russia keeps up its current disdain for Tehran's behavior, Obama will finally have a tremendous diplomatic achievement to crow about.

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