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Russia Can Deal With No Iranian Deal

On the issue of nuclear Iran, those holding their breath for U.S.-Russian cooperation should be turning a rather lush purple at this point. Despite the Obama administration’s efforts since last November, there has been zero real support from the Kremlin. In The Diplomat, Mark N. Katz explains Moscow’s unhelpfulness by taking a look at its relationship with the Islamic Republic.

Right now, Katz says, Russia and Iran share a richly dysfunctional relationship; they are linked by an atomic arms trade as well as a resistance to American influence, but remain divided by a tumultuous history (hint: the Russians backed the wrong side in the Iran-Iraq war). Katz outlines their dynamic in all its complexity:

[W]hile Moscow doesn’t regard the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons as desirable, it’s far more sanguine about this possibility than America and many of its allies are. However unpleasant the leaders of the Islamic Republic might be, Moscow sees them as (just like the Putin administration) focused primarily on remaining in power and thus unlikely to undertake any actions that could undermine this goal, such as actually using nuclear weapons.

At the end of the day, Moscow sees the costs of cooperation much higher than the benefits:

Moscow sees Washington as being well aware that Russia has little leverage over Iran on the nuclear issue and that Tehran could impose significant costs on Russia for cooperating with the West on this. Moscow, then, suspects that Washington is pushing Russia to cooperate with it on the Iranian nuclear issue not because it expects that this will result in Tehran becoming more compliant, but merely because Washington wants to bring about the deterioration of Russian-Iranian relations.

In the absence of a solution to the Iranian question, the status-quo serves Moscow quite well: it can enjoy high oil prices and more customers wary of buying from Iran, frustrate American attempts to push its regional agenda, and retain, in Iran, a unique consumer of Russian arms.

For the Putin administration, the worse, the better. When the West suffers, as it does in the ongoing foundering negotations, Moscow can gloat and point to waning Western influence in the region. When Iran suffers, as it will in the impending EU embargo on Iranian crude, exports of Russian oil see a boost and oil prices rise. Where almost every other player sees disaster, Moscow can see opportunity.

Beyond all that, Russia is much more worried about the rise of Sunni Islamism than the US. The Caucasus is vulnerable to infiltration from Sunni jihadis, and Russia’s old rival Turkey is becoming more influential and more Islamist at the same time. For Russia, Iran (and its ally Syria) are strategic allies against what it sees as a serious threat to its internal security.

US efforts to get Russia to play a larger role in the struggle with Iran would require much more serious sweeteners than the US has been willing to propose; it’s likely to remain the case that the price Russia would charge for real help in Iran is a price that the United States is unwilling to pay.

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  • Kris

    “it’s likely to remain the case that the price Russia would charge for real help in Iran is a price that the United States is unwilling to pay.”

    A news blackout on (of?) the Kardashians?

  • Walter Sobchak

    Why is Russia willing to allow Iran to have nukes? It is a chip shot from Iran to Russia. Do the Russians really not understand that they are hated infidels, with a restive Muslim population inside their own country. Is it that important to them to upset the US? Do they think they get a free pass?

  • Rodney Harvill

    Is it possible that Russia is ok with a nuclear-armed Iran because fear of Iran would likely drive the Central Asian republics back into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence for protection?

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