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Russia’s Tango with Tehran

I recently praised President Putin’s success in making Russia an indispensable player in the Middle East vis-à-vis the situation in Iran, but it remains to be seen how Moscow will use its new influence to advance their interests. Running interference on the UN and protecting Tehran from sanctions will likely have a limited shelf life before more urgent political expediencies surface, requiring the Kremlin to finally make some difficult decisions regarding the future of a nuclear Iran.

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad(L) greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Tehran on Oct. 30, 2007 (AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

There are already some signs of fatigue in Russia’s tango with Tehran. On the surface, the hostile rhetoric continues, but toward what objective? This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dispatched to Iran for a “surprise” visit (Russia loves surprises this year – Rice and Gates certainly weren’t expecting the “missiles on the moon” lecture), for a meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to discuss the nuclear issue. In public comments, Lavrov stuck to the official line: Russia sees no evidence that Iran wants to build nuclear weapons, and is passionately opposed to sanctions as a way to address the crisis. The Iranians, on their behalf, seemed to have crafted their response with a Clinton-esque precision according to U.S. opinion polls. General Mohammad Ali Jafari, speaking before a government organized parade, and identifying the United States by name, said that “If enemies prove to be naïve enough to invade Iran, they will be slapped hard. … Enemy knows that if it attacks Iran, it will certainly get stuck in a quagmire deeper than Iraq and Afghanistan and will be defeated.” It doesn’t take a pollster to tell you that “quagmire” is the last word American voters want to hear. So what do the Russians want to happen here? They often say they are committed to a “peaceful solution” to the Iran nuclear question, but so far no one has put forth suggestions of what this would look like. During Putin’s visit, he lashed out at United States aggression, yet refused to speed things up at Bushehr nuclear power plant. Although Lavrov used his visit to Iran to remind the international community that sanctions are the wrong way to go, he did apparently say he wanted the Iranians to continue cooperating closely with the IAEA. Iran may be delighted to have such great friends in front of the press, but privately they probably harbor frustrations over their lover’s fear of commitment. There are other reports that Russia may actually be pressuring Iran behind closed doors, while basking in some delightfully popular America bashing before the television cameras – it is election season after after all. Writing in U.S. News and World Report, Thomas Omestad argues that “Moscow appears to be trying to reformulate its role into that of a mediator or go-between of sorts in the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear programs. Such a role could, at times, appear outwardly accommodating, even flattering, to Tehran while it injects quieter pressures of its own on Iran to change course.” Andrew Kuchins has a new interview over at CFR in which he argues that the Russians are actually “working very hard” to convince the Iranians to reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. He said, “My sense is that he was fully briefed on the U.S. and German positions on Iran and, I don’t know precisely what he carried to Khamenei, but I do agree that it’s very significant he met with him. I think the reporting on that trip, as well as the Rice and Gates trip to Moscow, which was so negative and critical, got it wrong. The Russians are really quite close to us on Iran and they are almost as fed up with the failure of the Iranians to be more compliant with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on their nuclear program.” So if the Russians actually reluctantly share some mutual geopolitical interests with the United States and Europe in the Middle East, then why run interference? Largely, it is much more about securing a outcome separate from the Iran issue. Stratfor gets it partly right, in arguing that Putin’s historic visit to Iran was largely responsible for a very slight thaw in the Iran-U.S. relationship, when Foreign Minister Mottaki went to Baghdad and said he would consider positive talks with the Americans: “Moscow has been using its warming relationship with Iran as a tool to negotiate with Washington over concessions concerning ballistic missile defense and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. … Part of Russia’s negotiating strategy with the United States involves demonstrating it has enough sway with the Iranians to push Tehran into cooperating with the West on its nuclear program.” Consider the incongruity of what we know so far: 1) Moscow definitely does not want the regional instability posed by Iran possessing nuclear weapons, 2) Moscow must prevent at all costs a U.S. invasion of Iran, which would give them a foothold on the Caspian, 3) Russia is looking to leverage Iran to achieve a different outcome on the proposed missile shield, and 3) we know that for the Kremlin, there is no better situation than the status quo – the last thing they want is peace between the United States and Iran, and a functioning and cooperative alliance to build between them. Take for example the situation at South Pars, the massive natural gas field which is currently mired in political difficulties. Just yesterday Ali Vakili, managing director of the Pars Oil and Gas Company, announced that Iran is ready to push forward and solve outstanding problems with global energy companies such as Total, Royal Dutch Shell, and Repsol on LNG deals. As the American companies remain forbidden by law to invest in Iranian energy, emerging market companies are lining up. The FT reports the following:

Talks had started with Russia’s Gazprom, which was “very interested” in two or three phases of South Pars, while Turkish Petroleum Corp was planning to come in November “for serious talks”. A contract with China’s CNOOC on development of the offshore North Pars gas field was being “finalised”, said Mr Vakili, who declined to give details.

I’ll be the first to agree that Russia’s adventures in the Middle East go far beyond the simple analysis that they are “intent” on re-asserting their role as a major global power in virtually all areas (insert your preferred think tank line here – so many phrase it in identical ways). There may very well indeed be a “major deal” in the works by the Kremlin, tying in their influence over Iran in Iraq, the U.S. missile shield, and large stakes in their biggest potential natural gas competitor. This deal, I might dare to suggest with little evidence, could result in Russia gaining a much larger role in jointly developing the missile shield while at the same time securing a tight control over South Pars for Gazprom. There is already talk of an “innovative proposal” set forth by Vladimir Putin to the Iranians on the nuclear issue (perhaps it would be for several Russian-operated nuclear power plants, or some other third way out to get the UN off their backs) but it is far too early to speculate on what this could mean. With so many different pieces on the chessboard, the options are numerous. What is certain is that Russia will be comfortable to ride the fence for as long as possible, because they are one of the only parties to benefit from the status quo.