I continue to be somewhat baffled by the cozy relationship between Russia and Iran. Traditionally the relationship between Russia and Iran has been tense. Russia has, from time to time, occupied Iranian territory and, during the years immediately before and during World War II were in effective control of the country. U. S. dipomats of the period thought that incorporation of Iran into the Soviet Union was inevitable.
Although the likelihood of such a prospect was greatly diminished by the replacement of the Mossadegh regime by the Shah in the 1950’s, about which I’ve written at some length, Soviet ambitions were never dimmed and, as noted in the Mitrokhin Archives, substantial inroads were made even under the Shah.
IMO Russia has more to lose from a nuclear-armed Iran than we do and, if there’s any prospect of Iran arming terrorists with such weapons, they’re as likely to be a target of such attacks as we are if not more so.
Russia and Iran do have some shared interests, however. The most important of these, apparently, is countering U. S. influence in Central Asia. Commercial ties between the two countries, including development of Iran’s oil and gas industries (Russia, a major oil producer itself, is also a major producer of oil and gas production equipment) and arms trade have grown substantially over the last 20 years or so (last year Russia replace the U. S. as the leading supplier of arms to the Third World).
More troubling is Russia’s lengthy history of supplying nuclear technology to Iran, ostensibly for civilian purposes. On a related note see this post from ArmsControlWonk on the 40MW Arak heavy water reactor. The post included a quote from Robert Einhorn that I found amusing to the effect that you can use a 12 inch hunting knife to spread marmalade on your bread but that doesn’t make it a credible use.
Russia’s arms trade with Iran has been in the news recently with reports that Russia is delivering missiles to be used in upgrading Iran’s air defense system. Before you get too concerned you might want to take a look at In From the Cold’s analysis of the potential impact of this development on the U. S. or Israel.
There’s currently a sort of vicious circle in Russia’s trade relationship with Iran. As a major oil producer itself Iran’s oil is no particular temptation to Russia (unlike China). The rest of the world pays Iran for oil which takes the money and pays Russia for arms. The arms are used both for Iran’s defense and to supply terrorists who de-stabilize the region. This, in turn, raises the price of oil which benefits both Russia and Iran.
As best as I can tell in addition to this mutually beneficial trade relationship there’s a sort of negative reciprocity in the relationship between Russia and Iran. Iran agrees not to support Muslim terrorists in the heavily Muslim Caucasus (Russia’s “near abroad”) while Russia agrees not to support international sanctions against Iran. For Tehran this relationship with UNSC veto-wielding Russia is a real ace-in-the-hole.
With the increasing likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran, the potential for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East in response, and the potential for nuclear terrorism that each of those could bring, the situation looks pretty bleak. With things as they are U. S. ability to influence events appears to be at its nadir.
U. S. alternatives would seem to be to decrease its footprint in the region under the theory that, with decreased pressure from the United States, the internal contradictions in the Russian-Iranian relationship would achieve more significance, raise more hell in the region, or take a divide and rule approach by cultivating our relationship with Russia to put more distance between Moscow and Tehran.
Since the first strikes me as far too risky, the second as politically (and possibly practically) impossible except on a covert basis, as distasteful as the Putin regime may be, our best alternative may be to improve our relationship with it.