Since 2006, Iran has defied four sets of UN sanctions imposed on Tehran for engaging in activities that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons. In particular, the Iranian government has refused to heed UN Security Council resolutions to suspend its uranium enrichment activities until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can confirm that Tehran has not engaged in any unreported nuclear weapons-related activities.
Tensions between Iran and the West recently escalated after last November’s IAEA report detailed Iranian bomb-making activities. In addition, U.S. officials accused some Iranians of attempting to hire a hit man to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. More recently, Iran has detained and tried Americans as spies and has refused to return a U.S. surveillance drone. U.S. officials and experts worry that Iran will try to move into the vacuum created by the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
China and Russia have resisted imposing more UN sanctions on Iran. Instead, they agreed that the IAEA would simply issue a strongly worded resolution demanding that Tehran cooperate more with the agency. The United States and EU countries decided to tighten their own supplementary sanctions on Iran.
The Iranian nuclear crisis is not ripe for settlement. Neither Tehran nor its Western interlocutors appear prepared to make major concessions. And neither side, despite some occasional bellicose rhetoric, is ready to use military power to force the issue.
Although Moscow does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, Russian officials do not consider such a threat imminent or inevitable. Their main concern is that Iran’s nuclear and missile activities are driving NATO countries to support missile defense programs that Russians fear could eventually degrade their own nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, they count on Iran’s restraint in supporting Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, and assistance in limiting U.S. influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. They want to keep their conflicts with Iran regarding access to Caspian resources manageable.
Russian-Iranian ties have historically been troubled, and have experienced new tensions in recent years. The Iranians have been greatly angered by Moscow’s support last summer for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, by the decision to cancel a contract for the purchase of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, and by the continued delays in Russian construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, now more than a decade overdue. And yet, thanks to its isolation, the Iranian regime can’t afford to walk away from Russia.
Conversely, Russia has economic and diplomatic interests in Iran’s continued alienation from the West. Russian firms benefit from the reluctance of Western companies to invest in Iran due to the numerous unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on its government for its nuclear activities, past support for terrorism, and polices toward Israel, Lebanon, and other countries in the region. These tensions preserve Russian firms as Iran’s major economic partners. In their absence, Iran’s economy would likely return to its pre-2000s focus on Western trade and direct investment.
Furthermore, Russian diplomats need tolerable ties with Tehran to achieve their goal of positioning Moscow as a mediator between Iran and the West. They can leverage that position to induce NATO governments and Iran to offer Moscow concessions on a variety of issues. Russia might also want to work with Iran to address security threats in Afghanistan following the NATO pullout.