Moscow’s Middle Ground

‘Turning Russia around to support sanctions against Iran would be a great achievement. But will it happen?’

President Barack Obama’s engagement strategy with Iran has run aground. His numerous entreaties to the Supreme Leader were publicly and privately rebuffed. His lukewarm reaction to Iranians as they demonstrated against their rulers and suffered repression did not win him new friends in Tehran — and may have lost America its most precious allies in Iran.

Obama’s resolve to bestow legitimacy on the clerical regime was met with the appointment as minister of defence of the mastermind of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. Stopping federally-funded programmes to promote human rights in Iran or document the regime’s human rights abuses have failed to persuade Iran’s leaders of a new dawn in bilateral relations. And the much-publicised nuclear deal with Iran has unravelled.

Whether such failures will now lead the administration to reconsider its approach to Tehran is an open question. However, the chances for a significant change depend on discarding a number of deeply held beliefs. None is stronger than the belief that a successful diplomatic effort depends on concerted multilateral action, which includes Russia and China.

Over the years, both Europe and the US have consistently pursued this strategy. Multilateralism yielded some results. In December 2006 and March 2007, the UN Security Council unanimously introduced sanctions against Iran, through resolutions 1737 and 1747. But this approach soon ran into trouble. It took an additional year to get more sanctions adopted — and the new resolution 1803 added only a few names to an already less than satisfactory list. Since then, nothing more than a reaffirmation of these sanctions has made it through the UNSC.

Russia is responsible for much of the stalling — with China hiding behind Moscow. Much of Obama’s strategy was presented as an attempt to ensure that the Kremlin co-operated. Indeed, no price seemed too high-scrapping missile defence in Central Europe was just the latest in a list of gifts the White House gave Moscow as an inducement.

There is no doubt that turning Russia around to support sanctions against Iran would be a great achievement, one that would obviate at least some of the drawbacks of delays and watered-down sanctions. And if Washington were to announce that engagement did not work, the alternatives would be more effective if Russia went along rather than obstructing. But can Russia be turned around?  

Russo-Iranian trade is close to $2 billion annually — and is comprised mainly of deals for Russia’s nuclear and defence industries. But economic gains alone do not explain Russia’s reticence to turn up the heat on Iran. In the great and complex energy game Russia is playing with Europe, Iran has a pivotal role, as an important ally which could help Moscow bully the Caspian Sea nations and potentially set up an energy cartel that would keep Europe in check.

Then there are cold, raw power considerations. Russia sees Iran as its entry point into the Middle East-a gateway to regaining lost influence in a key strategic region. Russia does not see a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. It knows Russia ranks low in Tehran’s list of mortal enemies. Pushing the regime too far on the nuclear issue might engender the kind of sea-change in Tehran that could damage Russia’s long-term interests. The last thing Russia wishes to see is Iran’s return to being an ally of the West.

But this does not mean that Russia necessarily views a nuclear Iran with favour. But given all of the above, why should Russia be of any help?

Multilateralists may answer that Russia will ultimately come around because it cannot possibly want a nuclear Iran on its doorstep. This may be the case, but it does not follow that Russia will help hinder this eventuality. Russia may dismiss Iran’s technological prowess and think that Tehran will never master the required science to build a bomb. They may also believe that Israel or the US — or both — will attack and destroy the Iranian programme before that could happen. So why squander so much political capital in Tehran, when others will fix the problem at no cost to Russia? Better to be freeloaders, benefiting from a military attack politically (no nukes on Russia’s borders) and economically (Russian contractors will clear the rubble and rebuild the damaged infrastructure).

In short, Russia benefits from a middle ground between the absence of war and the absence of peace. It will continue to play its cards and leave the West stuck there. Its interests are not the West’s. More efforts to bring Russia on board and thus deny cover for China will be a waste of time.

Bottom line — don’t wait for Russia.

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