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Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev

Russia's role in the Iran crisis

By Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev
September 6, 2008
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IT IS ONE of the rites of passage of the fall - every September, the Bush administration returns to the United Nation for another sanctions resolution against Iran. However, this time there is much consternation in Washington that Russia's invasion of Georgia - and the subsequent chill that has descended on relations between Russia and the West - has ended any possibility of cooperation between the United States and Russia in dealing with Iran's nuclear imbroglio. Such fears are overblown.

Russia's assault on Georgia may produce no measurable change of its Iran policy. Indeed, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia made it clear that, despite the harsh rhetoric that has been exchanged between Moscow and Washington, Russia continues to support efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The primary reason for the continuity is that both Iran and Russia are essentially satisfied with existing US-European policy of applying incremental and largely symbolic UN sanctions on Tehran. Moscow feels that as long as the diplomatic process remains in play, America is in no position to launch a military strike that could destabilize the Middle East. At the same time, the theocratic regime has increasingly adjusted to a sanctions policy whose impact is negated by increasing oil prices.

Although Tehran would be grateful for a Russian veto of any future sanctions resolutions, it does seem content with a Russian policy that waters down UN mandates while deepening its commercial ties with Iran. On the one hand, Moscow has supported three previous Security Council injunctions against Iran, yet it has also signed lucrative trade deals and expanded its diplomatic representation in Iran. The incongruity of today's situation is that Russia rebukes Iran for its nuclear infractions while providing technical assistance to the Bushehr plant, which is a critical component of Iran's atomic industry.

For its part, Russia is happy with the standoff between Iran and the United States. Not only does it destabilize international oil markets - keeping prices higher than they ought to be - but Iran's large natural gas reserves are effectively off-limits for European use, reinforcing the continent's dependency on Moscow. At the same time, as Iran strengthens its economic links with key Asian powers, it makes it more dependent on Russia and China for its critical trade and investments. Russia can only benefit from Iran's gradual reorientation toward the East.

All this is not to suggest that Iran has not benefited from the Russian-Georgian conflagration, but that those advantages have been subtle. Tehran is using the Georgian crisis as a cautionary lesson to the Persian Gulf states. From its podiums and platforms, the message emanating from the Islamic Republic is that the Georgians mistakenly accepted American pledges of support only to pay a heavy price for their naiveté. The Gulf sheikdoms who similarly put much stock in US security assurances would be wise to come to terms with their populous and powerful Persian neighbor. In a region where America is viewed as unpredictable and unreliable, this message has a powerful resonance.

The contours of Russia's policy became obvious in the recent meeting of the Shanghi Cooperation Organization. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was unable to persuade Moscow and its partners to extend security guarantees to Tehran, or to gain Russian support for switching oil pricing from dollars to euros. Medvedev and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continued to urge Iran to be flexible and negotiate a restraint on its nuclear activities. Yet, Moscow also declared support for Iran's nuclear activities that were designed for peaceful purposes.

Given the fact that technologies employed for civilian use can be the basis of a military program, it is hard to see the utility of Russia's latest pronouncement.

What this means?

Russia is not interested in playing an active role in resolving the Iran crisis on terms America will find acceptable. If the next president is going to solve the Iranian nuclear conundrum, he must appreciate that the UN process has reached its limits, and that the only manner of moving forward is for Washington to engage in direct negotiations with Tehran.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Nikolas Gvosdev is a member of the faculty of the US Naval War College.

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