Russia, Why Not Be Tough On Iran?
After Iran announced that it had abandoned a two-year suspension of research into uranium enrichment, which some nations fear will be used to develop nuclear weapons, the gradually escalating crisis over Iran has reached a point where Russia has to make its choice. Opposite to the Iraqi scenario when France, Germany and Russia acted with a unanimous position, this time Russia risks isolation, as its European partners clearly defined their strong decision to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions. At the same time, Russia finds it difficult to abandon the political and economic interests that it has in Iran. Thus, the Russian position is evidently complex and remains a shade of mystery to the rest of the world.
How can Russia’s policy be explained?
Since oil has become such an important factor in world politics, we will begin here. As one of the world's greatest oil producers, Iran (Iranian proved reserves are estimated at 90 billion barrels or 9% of total world oil reserves) and Russia have a lot of common interests in this sphere. For example, due to the situation in Iraq, Russian oil companies have an interest in cooperating with Iran through investing and helping to develop its enormous oil resources. For Iran, Russian investments and technology might be very helpful while the country is facing economic isolation from the United States.
The next sphere of cooperation is the construction of nuclear power plants. It is not a secret that in the 1990s, Russian nuclear engineers faced severe competition from the Europeans and Canadians in a bid for construction of nuclear plants in Iran. Solely from an economic point of view, it is a tasty morsel worth billions of dollars. When Europeans left Iran due to political reasons, Russian companies found themselves suddenly in a luxurious position, something that they are not likely to relinquish. The nuclear power plant in Bushehr is expected to be finished in 2006, but some Russian experts doubt it will really start functioning before 2007.
Iranian spent fuel and a proposal to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian territory is viewed in Russia as another profitable field of cooperation that at the same time might be a compromise in the big political game.
For the same reasons as is the case with nuclear plants, the Iranian arms market is also under Russian care. During the economic stagnation of the 1990s when the Russian arms industry was on the verge of total collapse, Iran was probably the best Russian client. Iran always paid in time, with dollars. According to Iranian sources, Iran spends approximately $70 million annually on Russian weapons. Due to the restrictions of international commitments, this mainly includes maintenance and repairs. But evidently Iran continues to be a cherished market for Russians to get rid of old-fashioned weaponry and gain millions. At the same time, the Russian minister of defense who also holds the position of deputy prime minister responsible for the military industry made it clear that Russians will not sell the modern anti-aircraft system C-300 to Iran.
While economic cooperation with Iran brings significant profits, the Iranian Republic is thought of as being used by Russia to enhance its political weight in the global arena. As part of its perception of a multipolar world, Russia tries to balance its partner relations with the West with its pragmatic Eastern policy. In this sense, the Iranian crisis leaves a vast space for maneuvering in which Russia is likely to demonstrate its growing independence and importance.
At the same time, Russians won’t go to extremes to support Iran for the same multipolar reason. The decision to prevent Iranians from obtaining a modern anti-aircraft system is proof of this.
What is likely to be more important for Russia is its relationship to the Muslim world in context with the Iranian crisis. Russia cannot afford to act openly aggressive toward the fundamentalist Islamic country. Among other countries, open confrontation with Iran endangers Russia the most. It could further destabilize the situation in the Caucasus region. After the errors made in Afghanistan in the 1980s and instability in Chechnya, Russians are trying to be cautious in everything that concerns the Islam factor. So even Western oriented Russian politicians, who ultimately support US concerns, don’t want Russia to play with the Islamic fire and urge Russia not to be that openly insistent in confronting Iran.
Due to Iran's ultimate belief in its own supremacy and as a result the unreasonable policy expressed in the impudent statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Russia now finds itself in a difficult position. The Iranian president's call for Israel to be "wiped from the face of the map" was roundly condemned and sparked fresh fears that the research could be used in a secret weapons program. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia could veto any attempt to impose sanctions on Iran, but in recent days Moscow has expressed its "disappointment" over Tehran's decision to resume research, which may indicate that its position is slowly changing.
Anyway, Russia has to be more concrete in defining its policy concerning Iran. The final decision must be worked out soon, especially in view of the emergency session of the IAEA's 35-member Board of Governors and the upcoming visit of Iranians to Moscow. An Iranian delegation is expected in Moscow on February 16 for nuclear talks. Russia has said that a proposal to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian territory remains on the table and many people have taken the view that the offer is a potential compromise that could diffuse the current standoff. Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Russia said Wednesday that Tehran needed time to consider Russia's offer, and Moscow needed more time to finalize its proposal.
Dmitry Udalov is WSN Editor Russia.