Daniel W. Drezner

Russia and Iran, sitting in a tree….

Seth Robinson has a interesting essay over at The New Republic that explains why Russia is loathe to sanction Iran over nuclear issues.  The key part:  How does Russia benefit from its nuclear cooperation with Iran? Simple economics provides a compelling first answer: The Russian economy has not only reaped the benefits of the Bushehr ...

Seth Robinson has a interesting essay over at The New Republic that explains why Russia is loathe to sanction Iran over nuclear issues.  The key part: 

How does Russia benefit from its nuclear cooperation with Iran? Simple economics provides a compelling first answer: The Russian economy has not only reaped the benefits of the Bushehr deal, but it has also been bolstered by the sale of fuel and the potential sale of additional reactors. What’s more, the nuclear project is only one of many economic agreements between the two countries. Total bilateral trade hovers around $2 billion, as Russia supplies Iran with consumer goods, oil and gas equipment, and military technology. Russia also enjoys privileged access (along with China) to Iran‘s Southern Pars gas fields…. Second, Iran is still a powerbroker in the Caspian oil trade; its position on the Caspian Sea, which is estimated to hold more than 10 billion tons of oil reserves, makes it an important and influential partner for Russia. Tehran has been extensively involved in coordinating transnational oil and gas deals, arranging transportation of exports with a number of regional states. Russia is in a position to use its good relations with Iran to challenge Washington‘s efforts to create new pipelines and foreign direct investment in the Caspian region. Iran has already proven an effective regional ally for Russia–in addition to cooperating on energy deals, Tehran has pointedly refrained from criticizing Moscow‘s Chechnya policy and has held strategic meetings with Moscow on the Taliban.  Finally, Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran provides the Kremlin with leverage over the United States. Moscow remains guarded against Western advances into its "near abroad," and has fought to keep neighboring states from being brought into the NATO fold. By dangling the Iranian nuclear issue in front of the United States, Moscow may believe it has a means to maintain regional dominance. Russian leaders have already extracted concessions from Washington, as the United States recently altered plans for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. Yielding on the Iran issue would strip Moscow of the ability to coerce the United States and damage its own ability to reassert local influence.  

The first reason is both sufficient and compelling; I’m not entirely sure I buy the latter two.  Iran’s nuclear program gave the United States just cause to insert missile programs into Eastern Europe in the first place — so Iran’s nuclear ambitions have caused as many problems for Russia’s near abroad as they have ameliorated.  As for the Caspian argument, it’s not clear how a Russian-Iranian axis challenges U.S. energy diplomacy in the region.  If anything, that axis probably incentivizes the smaller energy producers to find a viable pipeline alternative that flows outside of Moscow and Tehran’s orbit. 

That said, the economic interest argument is pretty powerful.  So, does this mean sanctions would be fruitless?  Not necessarily.  The paradox about economic sanctions is that although allies are more reluctant to coerce each other, they are also more successful once they make the decision to coerce.  At the same time, successful sanction efforts almost always end at the threat stage.  So if Russia ever signaled that it would seriously contemplate a cut-off in bilateral exchange, the Iranians would be likely to concede before implementation. 

This is the outcome the Russians would prefer the most — a mild threat from the P5 + 1 prods Tehran into taking just enough action to avoid further isolation, and any further implementation of sanctions.   

But I could be wrong.  Persuade me in the comments. 

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