How Russia Learned to Love the (Iranian) Bomb

strangelove101209.jpgOut of the many, many interesting quotes we got from Vice President Joe Biden during his famously candid Wall Street Journal interview (which sounded like it was done in a cocktail lounge), was the following appraisal of the United States believes that Russia must feel about the possibility of Iran becoming armed with nuclear weapons:  “I can see Putin sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ, Iran gets the nuclear weapon, who goes first?’ Moscow, not Washington.

Logically and rationally, of course Biden is correct here.  Russia and Iran may be enjoying a brief honeymoon in their relations, but over history there are still some serious unresolved conflicts, involving everything from regional political disputes, pan-Islamic anger over Chechnya policy, potential competition in the energy field (Tehran is a Gazprom monopoly killer laying in wait), disagreements over imbalances within the SCO, and frustrations over the on-again, off-again teasing with the Bushehr civilian nuclear energy facility and the delivery of Tor-M1s and S300 systems.  All this plus the fact that for every additional country which goes nuclear, Russia’s international influence vis-a-vis its weapons holdings decreases.  We’ve even seen a few omens of what could happen,  hundreds of protestors in the streets have begun shouting a new slogan:  “Death to Russia.”

But predicting Russian foreign policy based on what are believed to betheir logical and rational interests is a big mistake, and Biden’squote is representative of a widespread misapprehension in Washington -this idea that Russia really has any interest in helping theanti-proliferation efforts.  Still that’s the current thinking I think we can see going on as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives to do some business in Moscow this week. 

On this blog we’ve covered a number of theories to explain why the Kremlin is in no hurry to cooperate with the West.  For one, as Bob argued in his last article in the Moscow Times, policy in both Moscow and Tehran is run by a series of clan interests, whose personal business portfolios in the short term and whose demand for mutual legitimation obscure the decision-making process.  There is also the argument of Russia’s “swing position” on Iran, which was recently knocked off kilter by the sudden Obama Administration concession to pull back from the missile shield plans in the Czech Republic and Poland (oddly, if the status quo was the goal, than the removal of the missile threat is actually very bad news for the siloviki).  Lastly, there is the issue of Iran and Russia’s mutual interest in market disruption to maintain a tolerably managed instability in the region which keeps energy prices high, though it’s hard to imagine that this would ever be sufficient reason to allow another country on your border obtain nuclear weapons.

Of course, a lot of people could choose to take President Dmitry Medvedev’s statements about Russia’s lack of concern over Iran at face value.  There are all variety of state-approved pundits in Moscow following the Iranian line: the country is not seeking nuclear weapons, even if they were, they are not a danger unless attacked, sanctions are unthinkably inappropriate, and the government always deserve more chances and more time to work with the IAEA.  However even Russian diplomats felt they were caught off guard by the last missile tests.

It might not even matter at the end of the day.  As the dominant theme goes in Russia’s foreign relations with the world today, it is always important to have these issues of “respect,” “prestige,” and “influence” as the global power that they insist they have resurged toward.  A lot of this is a legitimate complaint that there does exist a gap between how the world sees Russia and how Russia sees itself, but in other respects – like dealing with Iran – this newly reclaimed power has never been tested, and the true extend of the Kremlin’s influence over Iran may be vastly overstated for all we know.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Boris Morozov hits up the laundry list of points of why Russia came to love the Iranian bomb despite all the conflicts with what we assume to be rational national interests.  The article is worth reading, though I do think there is one thing being left out of the equation – Russia may well be playing the gentle pro-Iranian stance out of the firm knowledge that the full muscle of Israeli and Washington influence may work to reduce the Iranian nuclear threat, serving Russia’s own security interests, without them having to lose one iota of political capital.  Really, the ball will be in Iran’s court, to decide if they feel that Russia isn’t living up to their stated promises of a priveleged relationship.

For now, with Hillary in Moscow, we should get to see a pretty agile tightrope walk to appear interested in the concept of cooperation on sanctions, while never committing to the full support of either party.