Intelligence Brief: Russia Shifts Course on Iran
Moscow's decision against delivering nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr reactor demonstrates a change in Russian foreign policy. Previously, Russia has supported Iran throughout its confrontation with the United States and with the West over its nuclear research program. Russia saw relations with Iran as positive for a number of reasons: Iran is a major purchaser of Russian arms and nuclear technology; Iran's negative relationship with the United States has encouraged Moscow to support it against U.S. ambitions in the region, which Russia sees as a threat to its interests in the Middle East and to its near abroad; and Russia, along with China, has been pursuing a policy of multipolarity in world affairs, which means that Washington's attempts to limit the ambitions of regional powers should be opposed. In light of these interests, Moscow's decision on Bushehr signifies a change in its foreign policy toward Iran.
The Kremlin has stated publicly that its decision to halt production of the reactor is due to a payment dispute. Tehran, however, denies that it has failed to complete its payments, and has blamed Russia's decision on "political reasons." Yet Reuters journalist Christian Lowe claimed that European officials had told him that Russia said it would not deliver nuclear fuel to Bushehr until Iran complies with U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment activities.
It is not clear why Moscow has chosen to limit its involvement in Iran's nuclear program. While Moscow has stated on a number of occasions that it is opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that this is the reason for its decision on Bushehr. From the start of its nuclear involvement with Iran, Russia has known that the technology could be used for weapons purposes. If it were not for resistance from the West, Russia would have continued its nuclear involvement with Iran and would have loaded the Bushehr reactor with fuel.
Furthermore, even after limiting involvement in Bushehr, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov still defended the country, saying that Russia "will not support excessive sanctions against Iran," and noted that the March 24 U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed against Iran was softened as a result of Moscow's negotiations. Additionally, Russia continues to arm Iran, and recently provided it with the sophisticated TOR-M1 anti-aircraft missile system, which is capable of hitting targets at an altitude of 30,000 feet. If Russia saw Iran as a potential threat, it would be unlikely to assist in Iran's military development.
Some analysts argue that Russia's decision had more to do with Western pressure. This explanation appears to be the most accepted, although it too does not seem to be entirely accurate. During the past few years, for instance, President Vladimir Putin's Russia has taken an increasingly aggressive stance on the world stage. He has pursued a number of policies that have directly contrasted with the West, yet he has not stood down in spite of Western pressure. Moscow's energy policy that resulted in the cut-off of gas flows to Europe was an extremely provocative decision that was taken in stride despite Western outrage. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Moscow would curtail its involvement with Iran's nuclear industry simply due to Western pressure.
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