IDSA COMMENT

Russia-Iran Nuclear Connections

February 10, 2006

Russia's concern over Iran's nuclear programme is increasing with every passing day. Iranian authorities are showing un-willingness to accept Russia's proposal to enrich uranium in Russian territory. Russia is trying to resolve an international crisis over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme, though its position on Iran has rhetorically moved closer to the European "Troika" (France, Germany, UK). Russia agreed to Iran's referral to the UN Security Council on the condition that the council would take action only after the March 6 IAEA meeting. Iranian authorities are showing defiance and are not willing to listen to the rest of the world either. Russia is continuing its diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to accept its proposal to come out of the present crisis.

Russia does not want Iran to become a new member of the nuclear weapons club. At the same time, it feels that sanctions will not help to persuade Iran to take note of international concerns, given that sanctions have not normally served the purpose and particularly in the case of Iran it is feared that imposition of sanctions is likely to harm the global oil prices. It is also feared that any such move is likely to result in creating even greater hatred toward the countries behind this decision and will strengthen the hardliners' grip on Iran. This will also hinder the effort of Iranian reformists to achieve their goals. At the same time, Tehran could also initiate or accelerate efforts to acquire the ultimate weapon as a deterrent, if not to use in retaliation at an opportune time. Further, with its vast petroleum assets and great authority, the Iranian regime may start doing what it is already accused of doing. In view of these repercussions, at present Russia's proposal looks to be the best option for both Iran and the rest of the world. Generally it is perceived that in case of failure of this Russian diplomatic effort, sanctions could emerge as the most viable decision for the global community, which is slated to meet on March 6 to further discuss the Iran nuclear issue.

There are economic and geopolitical interests behind Russia's soft stance on Iran. Geopolitically, Iran is Russia's biggest neighbour in the Caspian region, where Moscow is trying to restore its influence. Iran being Russia's neighbour, Russia would prefer to maintain friendly relations with it, particularly in view of Tehran's influence in Central Asia and Transcaucasus. Iran could resort to supporting terrorist activities within the Commonwealth of Independent States by providing Muslim insurgents with weapons, money and volunteers mainly in Chechnya and Tajikistan. It will therefore not be beneficial for Russia to antagonise Iran at present. Besides, Russia's other neighbours like Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which are also Iran's immediate neighbours, will also face difficulty if sanctions are imposed on Iran. Further, Russia could also resist the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and US influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asian region through a possible alliance with Iran. Therefore, from the strategic point of view, it is important for Russia to maintain friendly relations with Iran. It is because of Iran's importance that Teheran was given observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia will adopt a policy to support Iran rather than to go against it. Given that NATO's eastward expansion is already creating tension for Russia, the anti-Western regime in Iran would be natural ally for Russia. Thus the combination of economic incentives, strategic interests and Russia's desire to play an important role in the global decision making process might induce Kremlin to work towards finding a diplomatic way out of the crisis.

Russia is very clear in taking Iran's side, with which it has close economic and military partnerships. Russia-Iran relations have been strengthened by arms sale and the sale of nuclear power reactors to Iran in addition to the US$840 million reactor at Bushehr. Russia expects to achieve up to $10 billion from its Bushehr deal, though it is currently building the reactor on credit to be paid by Iran only after the completion of the project. Russia will also sell Iran an air-defence system known as the Tor-M1. The Tor-M1 uses a mobile launcher to track and destroy multiple targets. It is the largest weapons deal between Moscow and Tehran within the past five years. There are also energy ties between Iran and Russia. Russia's state-controlled Gazprom has invested up to $750 million in a number of energy projects in Iran. Russia also exports metals and machine manufacturing supplies to Iran worth about $2 billion a year. Russia has also launched a booster rocket carrying an Iranian satellite in October 2005 and there are further plans to launch a second Iranian satellite in the year 2007. Thus, any setback in Russia-Iran relations would impact on these commercial contracts and affect Russia's nuclear enterprises as well as its military-industrial complex.

Russia would like to see Iran as an important strategic and economic partner. Regarding Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, it focuses exclusively on economic issues. Sanctions and admonitions will not change Russia's relation with Iran. Russia's present move also focused on its current policy towards Iran. Though at present Iran has not shown clear acceptance of the Russian proposal, Russia however feels that it has its own ways to persuade Iran, mainly through the supply of defensive weapons. As there are indications that Iran might need to protect its territory in the near future, particularly in the context of recent US pronouncements not ruling out the military option. Moreover, there are reports that Israel has drawn up plans for surgical strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities with bunker busting bombs supplied by the US. There are also reports that the Bush administration is preparing its NATO allies for a possible military strike against suspected nuclear sites in Iran. Nevertheless, in the backdrop of these realities Russia's intention will be to defend its own interest while helping Iran to solve the present crisis. Moscow is hoping to come out with an agreement with Iran on the uranium enrichment issue in Russian territory during the February 16 talks with Iran, which would cover a whole range of issues concerning the two countries.

Russia is now in a difficult position. On the one hand it is absolutely clear that a nuclear Iran is against its interests. In this respect, Russia's position is fully compatible with that of Western nations. On the other hand, if Moscow completely alienates Iran by siding with the West, the regime in Tehran could cause concern for Russia. One thing is clear to Russia: an isolated and nuclear Iran is certainly more dangerous than an Iran that is being engaged by the West and the international community. This consideration alone dictates that Russia keeps all lines of communication open and continues to maintain ties with its southern neighbour. While agreeing with the Western nations on nuclear non-proliferation, Russia would not like to lose its special geopolitical and economic ties with Iran. It is a difficult, but necessary, policy line for Russia, for it needs to take into account the short- and long-term consequences of any steps it takes on this issue.