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Moscow's Iran Policy A Question Of Balancing Priorities

  • Robert Coalson

Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) are worried about a nuclear-armed Iran -- but not as much as the West.

Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) are worried about a nuclear-armed Iran -- but not as much as the West.

Moscow has nixed a proposed meeting in New York this week at which the representatives of the UN Security Council members, plus Germany, were to discuss possible additional sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. "We see no 'fire alarm' that would require us to put off other things in the extremely busy week of the UN General Assembly and hold an emergency meeting on the Iran nuclear problem," a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated.

The move was largely viewed in the context of the ongoing tensions between Moscow and the West, particularly the United States, since Russia's military intervention in Georgia last month. It was dismissed as a tit-for-tat gesture after Washington rejected a high-level Group of Eight (G8) meeting and has taken other steps to exclude Moscow from G8 deliberations since the Georgia conflict.

Be that as it may, the rejection of talks on ratcheting up pressure on Tehran also clearly fits into Moscow's overall policy on Iran, a policy that views the Iran dispute as an inseparable part of the larger fabric of global affairs rather than merely as a regional matter or even a security issue. Clearly, it is not in Moscow's interest to have a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern border with the capability of striking targets within Russia. However, this danger is remote -- it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Iran would risk total annihilation by destroying, say, Russia's Black Sea Fleet or leveling Volgograd with a nuclear strike.

And that remote danger is made even more unlikely by repeated U.S. and Israeli declarations that a nuclear-armed Iran is "unacceptable." The refusal of the United States to pull the military option off the table means the worst-case scenario for Moscow, in the event talks fail, is not a mushroom cloud over Kuban but seeing Washington become bogged down in yet another military involvement with the inevitable further sapping of its strength and prestige. The facts that oil prices would also likely skyrocket under such a scenario and that Moscow would emerge as a "reliable energy partner" are probably also not causing Kremlin strategists to lose any sleep.

'Unilateralism' Is Unacceptable

Clearly, the dangers of a nuclear Iran are small compared to the immediate threat Russia sees in an overall international framework that is dominated by the United States. In repeated pronouncements, including Russia's last two foreign-policy doctrines and Vladimir Putin's infamous February 2007 Munich speech, Russia has denounced U.S. hegemony in global affairs directly. In the Munich address, Putin lambasted Washington for "forcing its will on the world" and said the unipolar world is undermining global security.

Ironically, even Washington's fiats that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable -- declarations that have given Moscow latitude for maneuvering in the current situation -- are examples of the unilateralism that irks Moscow most. Earlier this month, President Dmitry Medvedev told leading Russia-watchers that no "unilateral steps" should be taken regarding Iran, adding that negotiations with Tehran so far have been "quite positive" and must be continued.

Likewise, Washington's refusal to participate in the negotiations with Iran has annoyed Moscow, which sees it as another example of U.S. unwillingness to consider compromise. The Bush administration's belated decision to allow Undersecretary of State William Burns to observe a face-to-face meeting with Iranian and EU diplomats in July was likely viewed in Moscow as an opportunity to be pushed further.

Many in the West continue to argue that despite disagreements in some areas, Russia and the West have compelling common interests in some areas -- combating terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are usually cited -- where cooperation must continue. This argument may have merit, but only if it is based on a realistic appreciation of all the strategic goals at stake.

While combating terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction are broad goals to which virtually every international actor can subscribe, they encompass myriad specific cases and issues, any one of which may be sacrificed to broader strategic interests. Moscow has declared the erosion and eventual replacement of what it defines as the unipolar global structure as a key security priority. Moscow's Iran policy is a clear example of a situation where, for the Kremlin, getting the right result -- an end to Tehran's nuclear-weapons ambitions -- is not as important as getting there by a process that promotes its broader agenda.
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