Is Russia Experiencing a Change of Heart on Iran?

putin_iran112509.jpgWriting at the New Republic, Michael Crowley scrounges deep down in the evidence bin for an argument on Russia’s Iran policy:

In recent weeks, Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been derided by critics who say he has almost nothing to show for his first 10 months in office. But on one of his most important priorities–stopping Iran’s relentless march towards a nuclear weapon–he may be quietly reaping a critical diplomatic turnaround: Russia may finally be getting serious about Iran’s nuclear program.

Hmm… (chin scratch), yes, there is of course the permanent dithering on S-300 missile systems and the Bushehr nuclear plant … do please go on.

But don’t pour those vodka shots just yet: There’s still plenty ofreason for skepticism about Russia’s ultimate intentions. It’s nevereasy to divine Moscow’s true intentions, after all, and some peoplereasonably suspect Russia of playing both sidesin this game–opportunistically positioning itself to line up withwhomever seems to be winning the U.S.-Iranian struggle. Vladimir Putinis said to consider international sanctions blunt and ineffective. “Ithink they are fed up with the Iranians, but don’t see sanctions as auseful tool,” says James Goldgeier, a Russia expert at GeorgeWashington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

But others think Iran’s halfhearted response to Obama’s open handmay truly be changing Russian minds. Moscow may not relish crackingdown on its Persian trading partner, but it almost surely doesn’t wantto see an Israeli attack, either. “The evolving view in Moscow is thatadditional U.N. sanctions are the worst possible policy–except for anyother,” Kupchan says.

I do think that Kupchan’s opinions in Crowley’s article are interesting but relatively unsupported (“They’re not  at all happy with the Iranians“).   It is true that we have seen Tehran make some measured moves that they knew would cause Moscow some discomfort, but it’s clear that they can see the swing position that the Kremlin is firmly attached to and therefore can afford to make their patron angry and embarrassed as often as they like (think of Israel to the United States).  Besides, Iran’s rejection of the Vienna deal couldn’t have come of much of a surprise to the Russians, as the more isolated the country becomes, the greater the leverage obtained by Moscow.

In the past, the Kremlin was seeking the status quo of tension between Iran and the West, and in the present, we haven’t seen enouch to indicate a change in that perspective.  There may be a variety of other diplomatic fruits to be obtained from the reset (a replacement for the START treaty), but anyone pinning their hopes on a new U.S.-Russia consensus on Iran or other third party security issues will eventually be disappointed.