Of late, mounting international concern over Iran's nuclear efforts has once again made Russia the center of attention. More than a decade after its inception, the strategic dialogue between Moscow and Tehran has blossomed into a major partnership.
Militarily, Russia has become Iran's main international ally, principally responsible for its rapid rearmament and regional re-emergence. Ideologically, the two countries have drawn closer on an array of geopolitical issues -- ranging from opposition to U.S. influence in the Middle East to security in Central Asia -- under the guidance of the political leadership in both Moscow and Tehran.
This status quo, however, may not hold for much longer. Growing evidence suggests that Iran is emerging as a serious threat to Russian security. Take nuclear cooperation. Since the mid-1990s, Russia has launched a major effort to assist Iran's nuclear aspirations, most prominently through the construction of a massive $ 800 million light-water reactor at Bushehr. Although both countries publicly deny that this cooperation is intended for anything other than civilian energy development, international worries abound that Moscow's assistance has been a boon to Iran's military capabilities. And amid mounting pressure for Iran to submit to more intensive International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, work on Bushehr -- which Western officials worry could provide Iran with substantial weapons-grade nuclear material -- is now nearing completion.
Though domestically touted as a major success, this partnership could have ominous consequences for Russia. According to a recent report by the respected Moscow-based PIR Center, Tehran's aggressive pursuit of an offensive atomic capability, coupled with its advances in ballistic missile development, could allow it to field a nuclear-capable rocket by 2006 -- far sooner than previously expected. With that kind of a capability -- the policy center predicts -- Iran would be able to threaten some 20 million people in the south of Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran is likely to pose a long-term strategic challenge. Fears of Iranian meddling in the Caucasus were among the Kremlin's principal rationales for cooperation at the start of the strategic partnership.
Moscow, worried about the destabilizing potential of an Iranian presence in places like Chechnya and Dagestan, moved quickly to secure Tehran's good behavior in exchange for arms and nuclear assistance. That gamble has paid off: Iran has consistently steered clear of the Chechen conflict, despite repeated calls from regime hardliners to assist co-religionists in Central Asia.
Still, Tehran may not stay on the sidelines indefinitely. At some point, Iran's mullahs might not be able to resist playing the Chechnya card, particularly if they feel threatened by Russia's strides toward Europe or the United States. A shift toward support for Central Asian terrorism could also become a distinct possibility if Iran perceives the Kremlin to be scaling back its nuclear assistance as a result of pressure from the international community. With this kind of leverage, and plagued by ongoing unrest in Chechnya, Moscow might one day find itself no longer in the driver's seat of the relationship between the two countries.
A growing rift over the demarcation of the resource-rich Caspian Sea, meanwhile, hints at the potential for a major confrontation. Russia's efforts to establish a regional consensus on the Caspian Sea's delineation have increasingly pitted Iran against a trilateral Russia-Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan bloc, prompting Tehran to expand its regional military presence and assume a belligerent posture toward ongoing energy projects. In response, Moscow held massive military exercises in the Caspian Sea last summer, and Astana has since aggressively pursued the establishment of its own navy. If Russia and Iran are overtly seeking a diplomatic solution, covertly both are preparing for the possibility that negotiations may fail.
Small wonder, then, that the Russian consensus regarding cooperation has begun to crumble. In response to Iran's expanding WMD capabilities and its mounting international ambitions, a domestic chorus of concern is beginning to emerge. Prominent policymakers like former secretary of the Security Council Andrei Kokoshin and Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the State Duma defense committee, now worry publicly about the Iranian threat.
Nevertheless, a Russian-Iranian divorce may still be far off. Shrugging off domestic and international worries, President Vladimir Putin has recently made clear that he has no plans to abandon cooperation with the Islamic Republic.
What is increasingly undeniable, however, is that the Moscow-Tehran partnership has become a perilous enterprise. Blinded by the benefits of alliance, the Kremlin has ignored the growing threat posed by Iran. The competing interests of the two countries, coupled with Iran's nuclear advances, meanwhile suggest that strategic ties could fall by the wayside in the not-too-distant future.
If that happens, Moscow is likely to find its substantial military and political investment in Tehran to be a distinct liability, rather than an asset.