Russia has a strategic and economic relationship with Iran
Russia has a significant strategic and economic relationship with Iran that it is trying to maintain after the nuclear deal. To begin with, Russia has been a significant military and economic partner with Iran, providing nuclear power expertise and selling weapons to Iran. Russia supports the current sanctions regime but is looking forward to its expiration. In addition, Russia has long looked to use Iran to counter-balance against the U.S. in the Middle East while at the same time not antagonizing Iran to escalate its support for Islamic militants in Russian territories.
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Russia is particularly tempted to see cooperation in the Iran case as a lever to exert against U.S. interference in other issues of greater concern to Moscow. As the U.S. (and France and the United Kingdom) urged Moscow in October to take a tougher stance on Iran, President Putin was focused on a heightened dispute with Georgia. Georgia's leadership in turn beseeched the U.S. and Europe to stand up for democracy, human rights and other Western norms which the Georgian leadership embraces. This dispute has wider implications, as Georgia has sought eventual membership in NATO, to which the Bush Administration has been receptive. Georgia is such a high priority to Putin that it is difficult to imagine he would not see Russia's position on Iran as a way to affect Washington's position on Georgia. Yet, the Bush Administration seems not to see and bargain on the basis of such connections - not that this would be appealing: Russia's widespread and growing violation of Western norms raises the moral costs of Realpolitik bargaining with it.
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Russia's and China's geostrategic logic can be seen as they have cooperated in developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both sought to reverse the United States' penetration into Central Asia after September 11, 2001. Both see themselves competing with the U.S. over influence in the periphery of Eurasia. Russia invited Iran to be an observer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and at the height of the Security Council's deliberations on the Iranian nuclear case in June 2006, Russia and China welcomed Iran's president Ahmadinejad to address the SCO's tenth anniversary meeting in Shanghai. Iraq was the last bastion of Soviet/Russian influence and major business in the Middle East. The U.S. has completely supplanted Russia from the region. Now Iran offers Russia re-entry and is a bigger, richer and better-located partner than Egypt, Syria, and Iraq was earlier. Nuclear cooperation, arms sales, and non-interference in internal affairs such as Chechnya make it worthwhile for Moscow not to antagonize Tehran. In other words, Iran can be useful, especially to Russia, in balancing U.S. power and influence in the Middle East and Central Asia.
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It may be possible also to convince Moscow to reconsider its support for the Iranian government and its nuclear program. Bushehr is the pretext for Iran's entire enrichment program. If Moscow were to withdraw its support—and its engineers—the Iranians could not ready the reactor for operation and would have no civilian reason to keep spinning their centrifuges. U.S. diplomats should send the message to Rosatom that, over the long-term, they would be much better off staying out of Iran. If the UN Security Council were to ban nuclear cooperation with Iran until it was in full compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, then it might provide cover for Rosatom to cease its work in Iran. Absent such UN Security Council cover, the firm may fear that any withdrawal from the Iranian market would brand them an unreliable partner as they bid on other states' nuclear programs. So long as Rosatom persists in its Iranian business, it risks soiling its commercial reputation at a time when it can compete with Westinghouse and AREVA.
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In this context, it will be important for the next president to attempt to reach an early understanding with the world’s other leading powers about the importance of capping Iran’s nuclear advance. Unfortunately, recruiting Russia has become an even greater challenge since its use of force in Georgia in August 2008. Moscow could revert to its cold war approach of backing destabilizing actors in the Middle East (such as Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah) with supplies of offensive weapons systems and diplomatic protection in the UN Security Council. Preventing Russia from playing this spoiler role may not in the end be possible, but it is at least worth testing whether Moscow is willing to join a constructive partnership in the Middle East. It may even be possible that Russia’s leaders will welcome that invitation as a way of overcoming the negative repercussions of their Georgian adventure.
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In the past year, Iran's nuclear infractions have allowed the Bush administration to score a number of procedural triumphs, as the UN Security Council has censured Tehran and urged suspension of its nuclear program. However, such symbolic successes do not imply an inclination among the great powers to impose strenuous sanctions on Iran. This is not a product of French pusillanimity or Russian cravenness, but because the other leading powers do not share Washington's threat assessment and its sense of urgency. The conventional wisdom that Moscow and Beijing can be bullied, bribed, or cajoled into imposing strenuous sanctions on Iran disregards the manifestly clear reality that their posture toward Tehran is motivated not by greed or the inadequacies of the current U.S. administration, but by a broader strategic calculus about the immediacy of the Iranian threat and the relative utility of undermining American preeminence.
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Another mistake the United States made was failing to get Russia on its side. Iran cannot be politically and economically isolated without Russia fully cooperating for three reasons. First, Russia has widespread economic ties with Iran. Second, the two rising powers, China and India, refrain from participating in sanctions on Iran because both have interests in the country. Yet, both tend to hide behind Russia at the UN and other forums. As long as Russia does not join sanctions against Iran, China and India will not either, despite U.S. pressure to do so. European countries, such as France and Italy, also feel that halting their investments in Iran will be impractical.Without Russia, therefore, the United States will have little success. And third, Russia is the supplier of the nuclear reactor in Bushehr, indicating that Iran needs to continue ties with Russia.
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Meanwhile, Russia will continue to use the P-5 diplomatic process (in side and outside the UN) to push forth compromise proposals that in volve enriching and/or storing fuel on Russian soil as a way to give Iran a symbolic claim to autonomy but also giving the West what it wants on nonproliferation. As part of such a strategy, it will still oppose tougher, “crippling” sanctions toward Iran in the P-5 diplomatic process as part of a larger position that honestly does not consider a heavily monitored, conditioned enrichment program to be a strategic threat (i.e., Russia will continue acting on its analysis that “zero enrichment” is not feasible and, in terms of curtailing threats, is not even needed). More expansively, in terms of geopolitics beyond the nuclear portfolio, Russia can be expected to continue to curtail US and NATO geopolitical and geostrategic influence by cooperating with Iran (as well as China) on Caspian Sea, Central Asian, Caucasus, and South Asian issues. It will undoubtedly increase strong bilateral trade links with Tehran, providing Iran with consumer goods, foodstuffs, and oil and gas equipment as well as assistance on infra structural projects. In the Gulf conventional military context, it will keep supplying important niche military defense capabilities such as ballistic missile technology and contracts for a range of jet fighters, helicopters, submarines, tanks, and air-defense missile systems to Iran. Finally, the delays caused by Stuxnet aside, Russia will help run, maintain, and service the Bushehr nuclear power reactor as a part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that does not pose the most serious danger of weaponization, including supply of needed feedstock.27
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The position of Russia and China, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, is that they will impose only those sanctions required by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Russia earns significant revenues from large projects in Iran, such as the Bushehr nuclear reactor, and it also seeks not to provoke Iran into supporting Islamist movements in the Muslim regions of Russia and the Central Asian states.
In August 2014, the two countries reportedly agreed to a broad trade and energy deal which might include an exchange of Iranian oil (500,000 barrels per day) for Russian goods. That deal could potentially violate the JPA, if implemented.32 Russia is an oil exporter, but Iranian oil that Russia might buy under this arrangement would presumably free up additional Russian oil for export. Russia and Iran reaffirmed the deal in April 2015, following the April 2, 2015, framework nuclear accord. Also in April 2015, Russia lifted its own ban on delivering the S-300 air defense system that it sold Iran in 2007 but refused to deliver after Resolution 1929 was adopted—even though that Resolution would technically not bar supply of that defensive system. The Russian announcements in April appeared part of an effort to ensure that Russia has an advantage in access to Iranian markets if sanctions are lifted as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal.
. Congressional Research Service: Washington, D.C., April 21, 2015 (76p). [ More (5 quotes) ]
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Another growing synergy between Moscow and Tehran is bilateral trade, which currently rests at only $2 billion. The Kremlin predicts, however, that Russian-Iranian trade is poised to increase to $10 billion in the next few years. Moscow has provided Iran with consumer goods, foodstuffs, and oil and gas equipment and has assisted Iran on infrastructural projects. It has also supplied ballistic missile technology, chemical and biological programs, and a range of lucrative contracts for aircraft, jet fighters, helicopters, sub- marines, tanks, and air-defense missile systems. From the Russian perspec- tive, though, these exchanges do not advance Iran's proliferation penchants, as much of the equipment is considered outdated and obsolete. The missile systems in particular are a controversial contract. They possess an effective- ness range of up to 12 kilometers and could potentially target airplanes and drones, thereby shielding any nuclear installation from military assaults.
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The non-democratic governments of Russia and China also resent American democracy promotion efforts. If the U.S. wants to use UN Security Council sanctions as a means to coerce regime change, then Russia and China will resist as a matter of direct interest and to prevent the precedent for sanctions that could someday be sought against them. In this sense, the United States' grand strategy of promoting democratization around the world, through regime change if necessary, clashes with the interest in persuading Russia and China to support sanctions to alter Iran's nuclear behavior. Indeed, China long has displayed a general aversion to sanctions, which in turn have long been a tool by which the U.S. and Europe have tried to promote Western values and norms.
A prospective lifting of sanctions on Iran may bring economic benefit to its neighbors in the South Caucasus—Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Yet this cannot offset the region's deep-seated weaknesses, from ethnic tension to government corruption to substantial poverty.
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As Iran and six world powers edge closer to solidifying an accord that puts limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, a unique opportunity presents itself for the West. The United States and its European partners could begin to decouple the unnatural Iranian-Russian alliance to reign in Moscow’s hegemonic ambitions, as well as bring Iran back into the global economic fold. Competition between Moscow and Tehran would reduce Russia’s influence in the Middle East, unlock Iran and may even serve Europe’s future interest as it looks for alternatives to Russian gas.
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A look at a number of ways in which Russia's geopolitical position may change as a result of warming relations between the U.S. and Iran.
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