Don’t Let Russia Use Iran as a Bargaining Chip

by Daniel Vajdic

Several events in recent days indicate deepening ties between Iran and Russia. Last Monday, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev paid an official two-day visit to Iran. Patrushev predictably held talks with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council head Saeed Jalili. In an effort to highlight warming relations between the two countries, he also met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. The next day Salehi traveled to Moscow at the invitation of his Russian counterpart.

Moreover, in several weeks Russian energy minister Sergei Shmatko will likely be in Iran to inaugurate the commissioning of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia has been constructing for the last 16 years. Shmatko is expected to discuss with Iranian officials plans for increased cooperation between Moscow and Tehran in the realm of energy, especially Russian participation in the development of Iran’s massive yet relatively unexploited natural-gas fields.

The sudden opening in Russian-Iranian relations comes 14 months after Moscow consented to a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran — hailed by the Obama administration as the most tangible benefit of its Russian “reset.” The Kremlin’s acquiescence to additional, albeit heavily watered down, sanctions against Iran was followed by its decision last September to cancel the sale of Russia’s advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran.

But Russia seems to be changing its approach toward Iran. #more#The flurry of high-level exchanges comes at a time when Moscow is once again becoming engaged in finding a diplomatic solution to Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities. To this end, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced last month in Washington, D.C., Moscow’s “step-by-step” proposal for restarting negotiations with Iran.

Some have suggested that Russia’s attempts to reinvigorate its relations with Iran are a reflection of its displeasure with a number of recent U.S. actions. The State Department slapped travel bans on 60 Russian officials for their likely involvement in the murky prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. A Senate resolution reaffirmed U.S. support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kremlin was reportedly angered by leaked reports of a consensus within the U.S. intelligence community that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, was involved in an explosion outside the U.S. embassy in Georgia last year. And Russia remains uncomfortable with even the feeble pressure that the Obama administration has placed on Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its brutal repression of protesters in Syria. Mutual support for Assad has provided Moscow with another incentive to reestablish closer ties with Tehran.

But it would be wrong to consider Moscow’s abrupt change in approach toward Iran an entirely altered policy. Russia’s recent behavior remains consistent with its strategy in Iran over the last decade. The Kremlin increases its involvement in Iran in order to generate leverage that can, in turn, be used to extract concessions from the U.S. Its present effort to engage Iran is nothing more than an attempt to convince the U.S. to alter some of its less accommodating Russia policies.

Let’s hope that the Obama administration doesn’t yield to Moscow’s implicit blackmail, first and foremost because Russia doesn’t have the capacity to decisively affect the situation surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Giving in to Russia’s demands — which include reduced U.S. involvement in the former Soviet Union and disregard for Russia’s democratic deficiencies — will at best result in another round of heavily diluted Security Council sanctions against Tehran. As we’ve seen with the existing four rounds of sanctions, however, weak economic penalties won’t convince Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. There’s simply no reason to capitulate to the Kremlin’s attempts to employ Iran as an artificial bargaining chip in its relations with the West.

— Daniel Vajdic is a research assistant in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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