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Russia Balks at New Pressure on Iran

by MARK N. KATZ

16 Mar 2011 22:06Comments
AhmjadMedvedev11.jpgMiddle East uprisings, ratified U.S. nuclear pact yield policy shift.

[ primer ] After a year of cooperation on Iran, Russia now opposes new sanctions or other tough measures to pressure Tehran on its controversial nuclear program. The failure of recent diplomacy to get Iran to comply with U.N. resolutions, and reassure the world that it is not secretly trying to build a bomb, has triggered growing questions about what the international community should do next. Moscow now appears to be a major obstacle in forging a united position.

The Obama administration "reset" Russian-American relations shortly after taking office in 2009, in part to win Moscow's support on Iran. The diplomatic initiative appeared to be working well in 2010. Russia was one of six major powers -- along with Britain, China, France, Germany, and the United States -- that collaborated on both diplomacy and a new U.N. sanctions resolution. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also announced that Russia would not ship S-300 air defense missile systems to Tehran -- even after Iran paid for them.

But in 2011, Russia is now urging restraint on new punitive measures against Tehran. Moscow's unwillingness to pressure Iran any further is taking Kremlin policy back to the pre-reset days. Medvedev has also questioned Western intelligence assessments of Iran's nuclear program. Reverting to Russia's earlier position, he said there is no proof that Tehran seeks to acquire the world's deadliest weapons. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has even suggested that the time has come to ease sanctions.

Two developments may have contributed to Russia's policy shift. The first was the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as "New START." For Moscow, the New START treaty was a high priority. With Russia not modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal as fast as the United States, Moscow was desperate to get Washington to agree to the limits imposed by New START. Moscow would have been unable to match the American strategic nuclear arsenal without a pact. Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the treaty in April 2010, but Senate ratification was in doubt over Republican concerns about Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, support for Iran, and other issues. After Senate ratification in December 2010, Moscow's incentive to appease the Republican minority decreased -- at least for now.

The second factor is related to the democratic uprisings across the Middle East in 2011. Moscow did not seem concerned by Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution in January. Nor was it unduly upset by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. But when serious opposition to the regime of Muammar Qaddafi erupted in Libya, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began opposing the Middle East upheavals. Medvedev even suggested that the uprisings were instigated to trigger similar upheavals in Russia and to break up the Russian federation.

Moscow has also publicly backed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the Green Movement protests launched after the disputed presidential election in 2009. Indeed, Russia was the first major power to publicly congratulate Ahmadinejad on his reelection. Moscow had no interest in backing a democratic movement in Iran then or now.

Moscow's inconsistent positions -- tolerance of democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt but opposition to uprisings in Libya and Iran -- is due to their differing geopolitical impacts on Russia. The autocratic regimes ousted in Tunisia and Egypt had been closely allied to the United States. New governments may maintain those ties, but opening up political and economic systems could also provide new diplomatic and business opportunities for Russia. Libya, however, is a different story. Qaddafi's relations with the United States have improved since 2003, but Russia's relations have long been much stronger. A democratic revolution in Libya could decrease Russian influence in Tripoli -- and further improve America's position in this large, oil-rich country.

Russia is particularly concerned about an uprising in Tehran that could lead to rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Russian analysts have long been concerned that a geopolitical shift in Iran could crowd out Russian businesses and lead the United States to work with Iran on provide an alternative to Russia as an export route for Caspian Basin oil and gas.

In this context, Moscow's support for the autocratic regime in Tehran -- and its opposition to new sanctions -- are not surprising. And neither position appears likely to change in the near future.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

related reading | Iran Primer: Iran and Russia

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