By now, the notion that Russia and Iran are long-term strategic partners has become something of an article of faith within the corridors of the Kremlin. Since the start of strategic ties between Moscow and Tehran more than a decade ago, Russian officials of all political stripes, spurred by concerns about the rise of radical Islam in the Caucasus and Iran's role as a lucrative client for Russia's ailing defense industry, have steadily gravitated to the idea of cooperation with Iran's ayatollahs. Over time, that pragmatic partnership has also evolved into much more - a geopolitical alliance intended to counter American policy in the Middle East.
The fact that a number of Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin himself, have emphasized their solidarity with Tehran of late is a testament to the durability of these ties. In March, with the tenuous nuclear deal between Iran and the "EU-3" - Britain, France and Germany - on the verge of collapse, Alexander Rumyantsev, the head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, announced plans to deliver nuclear fuel to the recently completed nuclear reactor at Bushehr, the public centerpiece of Iran's nuclear program, in late 2005 or early 2006.
Just as significant, Moscow has sent unmistakable signals to the world community about its diplomatic stance on the Iranian nuclear program. Officials like Igor Ivanov, secretary of Russia's powerful National Security Council, have made clear that the Kremlin opposes taking Iran's "nuclear file" to the United Nations. "Passing the issue to the UN's Security Council, which is a political body, is hardly likely to be in the best interests of the case," Ivanov told Russian reporters last autumn. Concerns over this sort of continued solidarity were among the reasons for Secretary General Kofi Annan's recent warning to Washington that the Iranian nuclear issue could well deadlock the Security Council.
But change could be on the horizon. Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran over the past decade has been spurred by the traditional notion that such third-world proliferation was by and large a cost-free exercise. This illusion, however, is becoming harder and harder to sustain. Indicators suggest that Iran's expanding capabilities are emerging as a real and direct threat to Russian security.
According to informed estimates, Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile advances could put roughly 20 million people in the south of Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine at risk by as early as next year. Moreover, it has certainly not been lost on Moscow, the traditional driver of the Russo-Iranian relationship, that Iran's progress is also greatly expanding the potential for nuclear blackmail from the Islamic Republic.
At the same time, Russia is grappling with Iran's inroads on another front: Central Asia and the Caucasus. While carried out in response to American military deployments, new Iranian defense arrangements with Azerbaijan and Tajikistan - as well as Tehran's recent energy diplomacy with Kazakhstan and Armenia - threaten to alter the strategic status quo in the "post-Soviet space," and further loosen Russia's already tenuous grip on the former Soviet republics.
Several other issues - from Iran's continuing meddling in Iraq, where Russian companies are deeply engaged, to troubling evidence of recent Iranian support for radical Islamic groups in the post-Soviet space - have similarly become the source of considerable unease in Moscow.
Over the past decade, policy makers in Washington have attempted repeatedly to coax, cajole and bribe the Russian government into rolling back its nuclear ties to Tehran. Yet as the international community edges closer to crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration has remained strangely silent on the role that Iran's chief strategic enabler can and should play in curbing Tehran's mounting international menace.
That is certainly a shame, because rallying Russia constitutes a key part of any successful containment strategy vis-à-vis Iran. And, given the foregoing strategic considerations, Washington might soon find that, with the proper inducements, it has a more receptive audience in Moscow than ever before.