At first glance, Russia's current position on the Iranian nuclear crisis is quite controversial.
Its basic features were formulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Israel in April 2005. He said that just enhancing IAEA safeguards over the Iranian peaceful nuclear program was not enough - Iran had to abandon plans for the development of the full nuclear fuel cycle and place the rest of its peaceful nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. In support of this position, Russia reached an agreement in 2005 with Iran on the return of spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr nuclear power plant to Russia for reprocessing. Russia also tried (up to now unsuccessfully) to get Tehran's consent for launching a joint venture on an international uranium enrichment center on Russian territory, which would provide a guaranteed supply of LEU for the Iranian nuclear energy industry.
Currently Russia, in line with policy of the US and EU "Troika," demands the full cessation of uranium enrichment at Natanz and the resumption of IAEA inspections and monitoring at this complex, as well as the ratification by Iran of 1997Additional Protocol and full cooperation with IAEA investigations of alleged past Iranian violations of safeguards.
Nevertheless, Moscow's current position is somewhat different from Putin's April 2005 statement, although this seldom catches public attention. In particular, the cessation of Iranian enrichment activities is envisioned as a temporary measure, introduced only for the duration of time required for the IAEA to sort out its problems with Iran's past compliance with the safeguards. Allegedly, afterward Iran would be entitled to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle under IAEA safeguards, in line with Article IV of the NPT.
Most importantly, Russia insists that all controversies must be settled “within the framework” of the IAEA, not through UN Security Council sanctions. Moscow demands that all issues be resolved exclusively through negotiations, not by use of force. Russia (together with China) promised to veto any UNSC Chapter VII resolution imposing sanctions – to say nothing of the use of military force.
The position of Russia and China effectively negates the prospects for the UN to provide legal grounds for sanctions or military enforcement measures against Iran. With the United States bogged down with the quagmire in Iraq, US allies (with the possible exception of Israel) are reluctant to take part in yet another military operation – this position of Russia and China makes the US policy of pressure on Iran quite weak.
Precisely for these reasons, Tehran perceives its political position to be strong enough to rhetorically challenge Washington with immunity, gaining growing support and popularity throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
Whether Iran is keen on eventually “going nuclear” or its goal is something short of acquiring of nuclear weapons (i.e. building a full nuclear fuel cycle and only needing a short time to manufacture nuclear weapons), the Russian position seems to provide Tehran with great freedom for diplomatic and rhetorical maneuvering. It is being used as a smoke-screen for Iran's consistent progress in crossing technical thresholds one after another in its path towards developing the nuclear fuel cycle and snubbing the world with a fait accompli.
All in all, it looks like Moscow's position on Iran is self-defeating by demanding that Iran give away something very dear to it, while simultaneously removing all tough levers to enforce such a concession by relying only on diplomatic arts and positive incentives. (This is all the more so, since having a full nuclear fuel cycle under IAEA safeguards fit well within the framework of the NPT.)
Nonetheless, after a closer look at Moscow's posture, its position appears to be quite easy to explain logically - the question of effectiveness notwithstanding. Its fundamental premises apparently are as follows.
There is no doubt that Russia does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, for security and political reasons. Moreover, Russia is not supportive of Iran's development of a full nuclear fuel cycle – both for security and commercial considerations. However, this is not an issue for practical policymaking. In the Kremlin's decision-making process, the real issue comes down to what measures (and sacrifices in other policy interests) are tolerable when pressuring Iran on the matter of the fuel cycle.
The fact is that in contrast to the United States, Russia has huge political and economic interests with Iran. Iran is one of the main recipients of Russian peaceful nuclear technology and arms sales. Also, Iran is seen as a geopolitical counterbalance to the expanding influence of Turkey, the United States, and Islamic Wahhabism in the South and North Caucasus and Central Asia. Finally, Iranian oil and gas resources (4th and 2nd largest in the world respectively) are a lucrative target for future Russian investment.
Hence, probably close to 100 percent of the Russian political elite and strategic community (including the executive and legislative branches of federal power) would reject the use of economic sanctions or military force to prevent Iran from developing an experimental uranium enrichment capacity (i.e. the 200 P-1 type centrifuges presently operating in Natanz) under full IAEA safeguards and squarely within the provisions of NPT. This limited capacity keeps Iran at least ten years from being able to produce nuclear weapons. Moreover, though the position of the Russian elite on this subject may differ from that of the Bush Administration and Israel, it is apparently quite close to the views of EU “Troika”, the IAEA, and the democratic opposition in the United States, to say nothing of China and India.
Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of the Russian elite would also object to the use of sanctions or military force to deny Iran an enhanced enrichment capability under IAEA safeguards and within the NPT framework (3,000 or 54,000 P-2 centrifuges in Natanz), despite the estimate that such a capacity will get Iran to within a few years or even months of having the ability to produce nuclear weapons.
In support of their position, many Russians would refer to the number of NPT non-nuclear weapons states that have such a capacity today with no international opposition: Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, etc. True, all those states are US allies or loyal partners, but this does not mean that Russia cannot treat its own partners in the same way, even if some of them are disliked by the current US leadership. And it is not lost on Russian experts and politicians that the present Iranian nuclear program is close in scale to the one started in the 1960's and 1970's under the Shah with active US assistance. In short, today's American policy on Iran is commonly perceived in Russia as designed not against nuclear proliferation, but against the Iranian regime. On this issue, Moscow believes it is entitled to its own policy tastes. Perhaps the Russian view of an acceptable enhanced enrichment capacity is tacitly shared by the IAEA, China and India, while the EU would probably be deeply split on this issue.
Finally, there is the question of a hypothetical Iranian decision to opt for actual nuclear weapons acquisition. On this, the Russian elite would be unevenly divided. Still the majority would prefer a nuclear Iran to war. Proponents of this view would point at Israel and still more at Pakistan, supported by the United States, despite A.Q. Khan's “black market” scandal. The recent US opening to India, after many years of opposing its peaceful nuclear cooperation with Russia under the slogan of “not rewarding non-NPT states”, is seen as a victory of US geopolitical and economic policy considerations over strengthening the NPT. Similarly, many in Moscow would consider Russia entitled to its own foreign policy priorities, which in some cases may be higher than enhancing the NPT.
The “DPRK model”, which is the major concern of all opponents of an Iranian nuclear energy program, at the same time, serves as an example of a multilateral search for a peaceful diplomatic solution. In fact the example of North Korea is even more difficult since it involves open withdrawal from the NPT and official claims of possession of nuclear weapons, in contrast to Iranian insistence on the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.
Interestingly enough, the minority of the Russian political and expert community which would go along with the US use of military force to prevent Iran from following the DPRK, does not consist only of liberals. The liberals would take this view out of concern about Russia's cooperation with the West and out of fear of Islamic radicalism's access to nuclear weapons. However, they might find it difficult to advocate a military option with respect to Iran – an option which has not been used towards the DPRK, which by all standards is a much less democratic and more aggressive regime.
But some hardliners would support a US military operation for quite different reasons. They would welcome it as a promise of a complete demise of American power through getting bogged down in a vast conflict zone from Palestine to Hindu-Khush. Also, they would be counting on a further rise of energy prices as a consequence of war and the long term removal of the Persian Gulf states, including Iran, as Russian competitors in the world supply of oil and natural gas.
As for US considerations of changing the present Iranian regime by force, even all Russian liberals (with the possible exception of a few marginal “pro-American fundamentalists” of the Geidar-Kozyrev type), to say nothing of other political groups, would be vehemently opposed. The principle question would be: on what political and legal basis would candidates for forceful regime change be selected? And who should be entitled to make a decision on the use of force?
If Iran were not on the verge of committing aggression and therefore warranting an act of self-defense, decisions to use force against Iran should be under the authority of the United Nations Security Council. But on which provisions of international law would the Security Council make such a resolution, if the case was not a crime against humanity (genocide, use of weapons of mass destruction, etc.)?
Alternatively, if the world were to rely on the United States to make such a judgment, why couldn't China, Russia or India follow suit and change by force (or even more subtle interference) a few regimes they do not like? As it happens, the great powers capable of such operations very often differ as to their friends and enemies. Moreover, their friends and enemies change places from time to time without any serious change in their domestic politics (i.e. the United States and India in the past and now; Iraq in the 1980s and afterwards; Afghan “freedom fighters” in the 1980s and the Taliban after 9/11; Libya before and after 2003 – just to remember some fresh examples). Many in Moscow, extrapolating from Vice President Richard Cheney's recent speech in Vilnius, would be concerned about Russia at some point also becoming a candidate for such a regime change if its defenses are further weakened.
Last but certainly not least, the experience of regime change in Iraq after the US 2003 military campaign would serve as a major discouragement for this doctrine. Achieving military victory may not be so difficult, but reorganizing the economic and social life of a nation in line with concepts alien to it and introduced from the outside is something different altogether. Most Russians would argue that the economic and political development of a nation is a long, complicated process not suited for military “quick fixes”. Whether you like a given regime or not, it should be dealt with on the basis of its actions and in line with international law, which is exactly the way to treat the Iranian nuclear program.
Moscow's current posture in the Iranian crisis is the sum of the above considerations and interests, which are promoted by various state agencies and political and economic groups in Russia.
By demanding the immediate cessation of Iranian enrichment activities, Russia is following its own economic and security interests and is demonstrating cooperation with the United States (and the West in general) on nonproliferation. By opposing UN sanctions and US military force, Moscow is accommodating its interests in cooperation with Iran and in avoidance of the inevitable economic, political and security damage of war. In this way Russia is also indirectly forging a united front with China, India and many other countries in opposing US unilateralism and arbitrary policy of force, permeated with double standards and a disregard for other nations' differing interests and views.
By treating the cessation of Iranian enrichment activities as a temporary measure to be enforced only as long as it takes the IAEA to sort out its questions with Iran's past compliance, Russians may be privately telling Iran that it can pursue a full-scale fuel cycle after the IAEA is satisfied. At the same time, Moscow could tacitly argue to Washington (and actually believe it) that such a freeze may last indefinitely depending on IAEA investigative zeal, and anyway would gain time to find other ways of putting the brakes on Iranian nuclear cycle programs.
As any policy embodying a complicated compromise of various interests and competing goals, the Russian course has been only partially successful. It has made war less likely, or at least postponed it for some time, and it may have somewhat slowed down, but certainly not stopped, Iran's gradual movement towards a full nuclear fuel cycle.
US arguments that “Iran is bad” will not have much of an effect on Russia's policy line. Russia sees this argument as very weak given American treatment of other countries with dual purpose or clear-cut military nuclear capability inside and outside the NPT, as well as the history of recent US military operations against Iraq and past assistance to the nuclear program of Shah's Iran.
If Iran really is the top priority of US foreign and security policy, then Washington's overall approach to the region, its broad policy towards Russia and China, as well as the treatment of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, must be profoundly changed. However, this subject lies beyond the scope of this paper.
Alexei Arbatov is a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he serves as director of the Center for International Security, Institute for World Economy and International Relations. He is also a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. From 1993 to 2003, he served as deputy chair of the defense committee of the Russian parliament, the State Duma. In 1990 he was a member of the Soviet delegation to the START I talks. Revising Nuclear Deterrence: Transforming the U.S.-Russian Equation, co-authored with Vladimir Dvorkin, is forthcoming from the Carnegie Endowment in July 2006.