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Russia and Iran: An Eventual Clash of Interests

Here’s a startling picture: Today President Vladimir Putin demanded that the Americans name a pullout date from Iraq, while at the same time President George Bush is fighting to cling to his “political relevance” against a Democrat Congress. What a bizarre world. Perhaps this is an exaggeration of recent changes, but we should give credit where credit is due. President Vladimir Putin has pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke this week in geopolitical events surrounding Iran, turning Russia into one of the most indispensable Middle East players and making their influence in the region more significant than it has been in decades. Following all the hubbub of a very mysterious death threat from Islamist extremists, Putin succeeded in looking like some type of brave anti-terror hero by traveling to Tehran for this meeting, where he was greeted warmly by the Iranian leadership. Within the space of one week, the talented Mr. Putin ran circles around Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates over the missile shield, embarrassing them with unexpected hostile comments to the media, made fast friends with the increasingly lonely Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – promising them nuclear power and the protection of the authoritarian veto from UN sanctions, and, to top it all off, conducted a polite meeting the following day with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to talk about the Iranian nuclear program and finding a solution to Palestinian settlement process. The ultimate crown of triumph for Putin’s efforts came when the United States actually began to barter with him on the missile shield in order to gain Russia’s assistance on Iran. Regardless of your views of the Russian president, he played his hand damn well. What makes Putin’s performance this week all the more impressive is that it is all based on a bluff that no one can risk calling.

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How long before Russia and Iran compete in the Caspian basin?

It is a bluff because 1) Russia doesn’t really want Iran to possess nuclear weapons – they face far greater exposure to this regional instability as do the Americans, and 2) Russia is terrified of Iran becoming a genuine energy competitor. Last February I wrote a post on this blog arguing that Russia’s alliance with Iran was a temporary and artificial relationship, which hurt both American and Iranian national interests. Not too many people, least of all the Ayatollahs (which matter much more than scary bluster of the president), realize that Russia’s recalcitrant assistance on the Bushehr nuclear reactor is actually a poison pill, constraining Iranian options in the region. It is extremely important to the Kremlin’s interests that Iran remain a pariah state, especially so that its immense natural gas reserves do not become a regional competitor to supply Europe, thereby drastically reducing their leverage in certain relationships. In many respects, Iran is one of the only imaginable Gazprom slayers. Sooner or later, Russian and Iranian interests are bound to conflict – anti-Americanism may ignite the mutual passions today, but insofar as realpolitik, it is not sufficient to serve as a long term cohesive function. As Iran grows in strength, it will begin to project its interests through the Caucasus in areas that the Russians feel is their turf. Their historical rivalry with Turkey will also come into play, and assuming the United States succeeds in extricating itself from Iraq, Iran will once again have serious concerns on its Western border for which Russia can’t offer much support. The brilliance of Putin’s moves vis-a-vis Tehran lie in his ability to perceive a geopolitical opportunity and skillfully exploit it. Iran became exponentially more important in the region following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, yet were in desperate need of a sponsor, especially one that carried weight in international bodies such as the United Nations. As noted above, Russia does not necessarily share any real interests with Iran, other than instrumentalizing that relationship as a leverage point to project its influence. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote some time ago that the current Kremlin leadership has become specialized in creating crises and than extracting concessions to help solve them. In the same vein, a recent analysis on Stratfor by Peter Zeihan (which contains much that I disagree with) argues that there are many more crises that Russia can aggravate to advance its interests:

So crisis-making is about to become Russia’s newest growth industry. The Kremlin has a very long list of possibilities, which includes: * Destabilizing the government of Ukraine: The Sept. 30 elections threaten to result in the re-creation of the Orange Revolution that so terrifies Moscow. With the United States largely out of the picture, the Russians will spare no effort to ensure that Ukraine remains as dysfunctional as possible. * Azerbaijan is emerging as a critical energy transit state for Central Asian petroleum, as well as an energy producer in its own right. But those exports are wholly dependent upon Moscow’s willingness not to cause problems for Baku. * The extremely anti-Russian policies of the former Soviet state of Georgia continue to be a thorn in Russia’s side. Russia has the ability to force a territorial breakup or to outright overturn the Georgian government using anything from a hit squad to an armored division. * EU states obviously have mixed feelings about Russia’s newfound aggression and confidence, but the three Baltic states in league with Poland have successfully hijacked EU foreign policy with regard to Russia, effectively turning a broadly cooperative relationship hostile. A small military crisis with the Balts would not only do much to consolidate popular support for the Kremlin but also would demonstrate U.S. impotence in riding to the aid of American allies.

So why not recognize Putin’s deft outmaneuvering of our clod-footed diplomats working on the Iran issue? By and large, this week the American and British press have demonized and disrespected Mr. Putin for his realpolitik in Iran, which is entirely nonconstructive with respect to the ultimate goal of political and economic integration with Russia for Europe and the United States on NAFTA-like terms. It is delusional to say that Putin has not been successful in projecting Russia’s interests and capturing political relevance in the Middle East – this is contrasted sharply by his difficulties domestically, where he is challenged on a daily basis by the considerable instability of feuding elites. The causes of democracy and human rights are not served well these distorted and embittered appraisals of a difficult political reality. If the Iran and Middle East crisis issues are to be solved, some pragmatism is needed, and a basic recognition that Russia will now play a role – like it or not.