Russia Holds Key to Iran’s Nukes
By: Greg C. Reeson
For years, now, the international community has been wrestling with the issue of Iran’s continued development of nuclear technology. Despite a history of deception and obstruction by the government in Tehran, the United Nations has made precious little progress toward its stated goal of halting Iranian uranium enrichment. The only thing the Security Council has been able to achieve thus far is a weak sanctions regime that has had minimal impact on Iran’s energy sector and no impact on its nuclear development efforts.
Continued efforts at dialogue with Iran are not likely to change the status quo in the foreseeable future, a fact that makes it necessary for the United States and its European allies to consider trying a new approach. Instead of focusing attention and energy on Iran, concerned parties should instead consider a significant expansion of dialogue with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Why Russia? Simply put, Russia holds the key to Iran’s nuclear future, and to Iran’s vulnerability to international pressure.
Russian-Iranian cooperation has been both significant and blatantly overt. The Russian-Iranian connection includes nuclear development, various business interests, supply of military equipment, and an Iranian reliance on Russian veto power in the UN Security Council. If the United States and the European Union are to be successful at pushing through a meaningful sanctions resolution in order to increase Iran’s isolation and tighten the financial noose on Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, Russian cooperation will be critical.
So far, Russia has been unwilling to provide such cooperation, instead choosing to warn against the use of force and press the need for more of the negotiations that have thus far proven futile. Despite voting for two rounds of sanctions, which, as noted, were relatively insignificant with regard to their impact on Iran, Russia has blocked efforts for a third, more stringent package. If Russia truly hopes to avoid the possibility of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, whether such a strike would be American, Israeli, European, or coalition in nature, then Mr. Putin should be open to direct discussions about tougher measures against Ahmadinejad and the clerics who run the Iranian government.
Sanctions, which historically have a mixed record of successes and failures, are reported to be impacting Iran’s energy industry. Meaningful restrictions on foreign investment, that are strictly enforced by the international community, would limit Tehran’s ability to improve its energy infrastructure, would increase domestic pressure on the Iranian government, and would force the Iranians to engage the United Nations in a sincere effort to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear impasse. For Russia to join the American-European sanctions push that is likely to occur after the International Atomic Energy Agency reports back to the UN next month, though, the price will be steep.
Since Putin was elected president in 2000, he has made every effort to regain for Russia the power and influence that was lost when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. Knowing that Russia is never again likely to extend its influence as far as it once did in Europe, Putin has concentrated his efforts on countries of the former Soviet Union that are on Russia’s immediate periphery. And since he is trying to once again extend Russian influence, particularly in the Caucasus, he is extremely resentful of American-led efforts to push into Russia’s former sphere of influence. Several issues in particular have been forced to the forefront of Russian-American dialogue, including NATO expansion, ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe, and two treaties, START I and CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe). Western encroachment and regional power balances will have to be addressed if the United States and Europe want Russia to cooperate on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
The problem, though, is that concessions to Russia on influence in former Soviet countries would mean abandoning allies that have aligned with the United States and Europe since the early 1990s. So President Bush and European leaders have some tough decisions to make, knowing that we cannot abandon those nations that have stood by us since the end of the Cold War, and at the same time realizing that Russia will be instrumental in any solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.
While Russia publicly states that there is no clear evidence that Iran’s nuclear development is for anything other than peaceful purposes, and that the United States is exaggerating the threat, Russia is just as wary as the United States and Europe when it comes to the prospect of Iran possessing nuclear weapons. Since Russia’s long-term interests are in the areas that once belonged to the Soviet Union, and not in the Middle East, there is some room for dialogue and compromise.
Iran’s standing with the international community has been significantly degraded of late, and Putin’s visit this week threw Tehran a lifeline in the midst of strengthening European and American resolve to confront the nuclear impasse. But Iran is of secondary importance to Russia, and the possibility exists that the West, led by the United States and Europe, could come to a mutually beneficial agreement with Russia that would return Iran to isolation and increase the pressure on Tehran to come clean about its nuclear activities. The question is whether or not the West is prepared to cede sufficient power and influence to Russia in order to find a diplomatic solution.