Russia doggedly at Tehran's side
By Stephen Blank
It should come as no surprise that President Vladimir Putin refused to curtail Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear reactor at his recent summit with President George W Bush. Indeed, it would have been surprising if he had agreed to do so. Russia's unwillingness to foreclose on Iran's nuclear project is what philosophers might call overdetermined. That is, Russia, which is assisting with the construction of a light-water nuclear reactor near Bushehr, derives so many benefits from the Iranian project that it would be strange for it to forego those merely to please America.
After all, it is eminently arguable from a Russian standpoint that Russia received very little for supporting America after September 11. Not only did the US and then North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops appear in Central Asia, Georgia and Azerbaijan invited US forces to their countries to help them defend against threats, not the least of which are from Moscow.
These moves clearly contravened the Russian elite's ingrained belief in an imperial state where the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are wayward children who, unable to govern themselves, will soon return, whether they want to or not, to the Russian fold. Likewise, NATO enlarged to the Baltic states, another reminder of the end of empire. And since then American emissaries throughout the CIS have more or less overtly used their influence to retard Russian attempts at reintegrating those states under its auspices. The US also went ahead and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty to build missile defenses, and to add final insult to injury, it disregarded Russian offers of assistance in Iraq in return for guarantees of Iraq's debt payment to Russia and a share in future oil contracts. Meanwhile, few contracts with US oil firms have materialized since 2001, despite ongoing negotiations in some cases.
Presently, Washington wants Russian assistance in Iraq, and while Putin will supposedly support sending Russian troops there pending an authoritative UN resolution, one can be sure that there is a larger payoff, presumably connected to that Iraqi debt and energy supplies. Therefore, there are few quid pro quos that Washington can offer Moscow in return for cessation of its support for Iran, Putin's rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.
To understand this fact in its full context one must remember that nuclear and other forms of proliferation are an issue that brings together domestic and foreign policy issues. Key domestic lobbies stand to benefit considerably from aiding Iran. In this case, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, Minatom, is a prime example. It makes a fortune from sales abroad, including Iran, and has steadily refused to even consider not selling nuclear reactors to Iran and other potentially proliferating states like India and China. Although not a rogue elephant, as it may have been in the 1990s, it still remains a formidable bureaucratic player.
The same may also be said for Russian weapons producers. The defense industry is a shadow of what it was under communism, but on issues of direct relevance to it it has shown considerable power and ability to get its way, including major state subsidies for key projects. It, too, has large and vested interests in arms sales to Iran. Indeed, it views Iran as being potentially, if not actually, the third largest foreign market for Russian arms sales. So it will certainly oppose any Russian policy that imposes limits on Iran's ability to acquire Russian weapons and technology.
Thus these two elite blocs, and many members of the government, have habitually taken refuge in the endlessly reiterated their belief that America simply wants to take away a Russian market for itself, as it supposedly did with North Korea. Putin, too, has baldly restated this story and publicly pretended that he has no idea of the extent of Russian nuclear assistance to Iran. When one considers that in 1997-98 Russian journalist Evgenia Albats published a detailed institution-by-institution account of who was helping Iran and how, it is clear that Putin's and his acolytes' story is wrong.
But even if key domestic lobbies were silent on this issue, there are strong foreign and defense policy reasons for continuing to support Iran. Iran remains the only true friend of Moscow in the Persian Gulf and Middle East as well as a state dependent on Russian diplomatic support and arms transfers. Both of them share a common determination to keep Washington out of the Gulf and the CIS. Their leaders have at times talked in public about the virtues of a bloc with China against America in support of a "multipolar world". Therefore, Iran is a major foreign policy investment for Russia's ministries of foreign affairs and of defense.
Likewise, despite a lot of official rhetoric, major sections of Russia's foreign policy makers clearly do not take the threat of proliferation very seriously. Otherwise they would not have been proliferating to Iran, Iraq, China, India, and North Korea during the past decade. As all those cases are pretty well documented, it is hard to square protestations about the danger of proliferation with the actual policies involved.
Finally, despite many pubic fears to the contrary, Iran has, since 1991, followed an extremely circumspect policy towards the Caucasus and Central Asia. It decided when the Soviet Union was collapsing that it made no sense for it to antagonize Russia with regard to these areas, which Iran rightly appreciated would come to be seen as Russian vital interests, given America's unremitting hostility to it. Moreover, it clearly calculated correctly that Russia would be a source of diplomatic support, collaboration and arms sales to it. Moscow, for its part, had decided by February, 1992 that Iran, if it did not get arms sales, could make a lot of trouble for Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which Moscow did not need.
Thus these sales are a way of paying off Iran not to make trouble, a bargain that Iran has faithfully kept and which works very well for Russia. Ending that bargain gains nothing for Moscow, except American good will, which it has already clearly discounted.
This analysis also shows that once again Washington has fallen for one of the oldest mistakes in relations with Russia, namely the belief that good personal relations with Russia's leader overrides anything else in the bilateral equation. While such relations are vital, they go nowhere if bureaucratic support and elite support are not forthcoming.
As Nikolai Gvosdev forcefully pointed out in the Moscow Times, that is precisely the case in US-Russian relations, neither side's domestic and bureaucratic elites has any compelling interest in making presidential agreements a reality, at least as far as Iran is concerned. Thus Washington cajoles Moscow, which pretends to listen. And when Moscow shows its true colors on this issue, nothing much happens, except for some meaningless sanctions of a few small fry.
Unfortunately, Iran advances ever closer to a nuclear capability that will constitute a global threat, given its support for terrorism on a global scale, as in Argentina and Western Europe. Russian authorities know what is at stake, but clearly do not care very much. The hour of decision on Iran is fast approaching, and if Iran does succeed in going nuclear, Moscow will hardly be able to escape the ensuing threats to its position in Central Asia and the Caucasus. But by then it will be too late for both it and for America, not to mention other states.
Meanwhile, the experience of the 20th century and of current world politics tells us that if we really want to prevent someone from going nuclear, it is necessary either to physically destroy the weapons by preemptive strike, as Israel did to Iraq in 1981, or to occupy the country, as the post-1945 history of Japan and Germany tell us.
Do Moscow and Washington really want to leave themselves only these options to prevent a conclusion that they both profess to want? If so, this is a very strange way to form the strategic partnership that they both claim to want. On the other hand, as the summit in Camp David suggests, rhetoric aside, that there is probably less to this partnership than meets the eye.
Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, PA.
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Once again thanks for keeping the FR crowd informed.