Just how durable are the ties between Russia and Iran? For years Western policymakers have been attempting to understand--and end--what is arguably the Iranian regime's most important international partnership. Recent weeks have only added urgency to the question, as the West ramps up its desperate scramble to stop Iran's relentless march toward the bomb.
Not surprisingly, Iran has emerged as a key element of the "reset" in relations underway between Washington and Moscow. President Obama is even reported to have offered to sacrifice a large portion of his predecessor's missile defense plans as a quid pro quo of sorts for Russia's cooperation. Yet Moscow has reciprocated only minimally to these overtures. Indeed, despite increasingly clear signs of Iran's runaway nuclear ambitions, the Kremlin remains opposed to the very idea of comprehensive sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Here's why.
First, Iran's nuclear ambitions are a cash cow for the Kremlin. In the years after 9/11, Russia's vast energy sector and the high world price of oil helped fuel its geopolitical revival. Since the onset of the global financial crisis, however, Russia's economic fortunes have experienced a devastating reversal of fortune. Last year Russian GDP plummeted nearly 8%, driven downward by a 77% decline in world energy prices.
Perpetuating the current crisis over Iran's nuclear program therefore makes good business sense. As one energy expert explained recently in the Moscow Times:
"Assuming the Iranian situation influences the oil price upward by a conservative estimate of roughly $3 or $4 a year, Russia stands to gain $6 billion to $8 billion, not to mention any benefits to the price of natural gas and the maintenance of its gas supply monopoly to Europe. A thaw between Iran and the West stands to increase the downward pressure on the price of oil, in addition to any lost revenue if Iran becomes a significant gas supplier to Europe. Given this calculation, Russia's position regarding sanctions seems much more logical."
Russia's nuclear trade has benefited considerably from the current crisis as well. Since 2003, when Iran's nuclear program was first disclosed, the greater Middle East has seen an explosion of interest in the atom. Today no fewer than 14 countries in Iran's neighborhood have openly begun to pursue some level of nuclear capability. And Russia, the world's leading exporter of nuclear technology, has reaped the benefits. Over the past five years Moscow has inked nuclear cooperation deals with Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. Even Libya, which ostensibly gave up its atomic ambitions during the Bush administration, now appears to be resuming its investments in nuclear technology--and is doing so with the assistance of Russian industry.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary, however, has been Russia's arms sector. Two decades ago the breakup of the Soviet Union left Russia's defense industry on the verge of collapse. Today Russia's military trade with the world is vast--and booming. This turnaround has a great deal to do with regional jitters over Iran's nuclear program. According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, arms sales to the Middle East rose by nearly 40% between 2004 and 2008, with Iran's neighbors among the most active clients. Hoping to capitalize on this trend, Russia's arms industry is now said to be in the throes of a major expansion in the Middle East. All in all, in other words, Iran's nuclear program has proved a boon for Russian business.
These commercial instincts have only been reinforced by Russian views of political change in Iran. Simply put, officials in Moscow see the possibility of a change of regime--or even of governmental behavior--as a serious threat to their interests.
Most immediately, experts have publicly worried that a revolutionary "upheaval" of one kind or another within Iran would lead to a fragmentation of the country and adversely affect security on Russia's periphery. Or inside it. Russia is currently in the throes of a massive demographic upheaval, one driven by a catastrophic decline in the fertility of its Slavic population. Russia's Muslim population, by contrast, is trending in the opposite direction; by the end of the next decade, informed estimates say, Russia's Muslims could make up a fifth or more of the country's total population. This cohort, moreover, is increasingly alienated and politically disaffected, making it vulnerable to exploitation by outside forces. And Iran, with its history of regional meddling, represents a real danger in this regard should Moscow and Tehran ever part ways.
Then there are the potential costs associated with a new regime in Tehran. Russian officials remember well their recent experience in Iraq, in which long-standing collusion with the Saddam regime led to their ouster from lucrative contracts following the end of Ba'athist rule. It took the Kremlin years to reestablish a commercial foothold in the country, and while dealings with Baghdad have more or less stabilized, officials in Moscow are in no hurry to repeat the experience.
Such a divorce has become a real danger of late. The popular unrest that has swept Iran since the country's fraudulent June 12 presidential election has showcased widespread chants of "Death to Russia," making it clear that in the eyes of Iran's opposition, Moscow's steadfast partnership with the current clerical regime has made it a mortal enemy. Russia therefore has a vested interest in supporting Iran's ayatollahs against their democratic opposition.
Finally, Iran is important to Russia's most immediate geopolitical priority: continued hegemony over its "near abroad." In recent years officials in Moscow have watched the encroachment of the U.S. and its NATO partners into the "post-Soviet space" with growing alarm. While Moscow initially supported Coalition operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, more than a few Russians now believe that the War on Terror has become a vehicle for the U.S. and Europe to diminish Russian hegemony in its former holdings.
Iran offers a way out. A West preoccupied with containing and managing a crisis in the Middle East, the thinking goes, is far less likely to meddle in Russia's traditional sphere of influence. Nor will it be able to field a serious challenge to Russia's efforts to reassert its dominance over parts of the former Soviet Union, either politically (as in the case of Ukraine) or militarily (such as in Georgia).
All this goes a long way toward explaining why, despite Tehran's continued misbehavior, the Kremlin continues to toe a profoundly unconstructive line on Iran. Quite simply, the ties that bind Moscow to Tehran are too durable and too entwined with core Russian national interests to fall by the wayside on their own. The Obama administration has spent months ignoring this reality and appealing to the better angels of Russia's nature for help in dealing with Iran. Instead, it should seek a way to sever the bonds between the two.