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Russia, Iran, and the Nuclear Question: The Putin Record

Authored by Dr. Robert O. Freedman. | November 2006

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Vladimir Putin inherited a strong Russian-Iranian relationship from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Russia made major arms agreements with Iran under Yeltsin, selling Tehran jet planes, tanks, and submarines, and also began building a nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr. The two countries also cooperated on regional issues such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Yeltsin valued the low Iranian profile during the first Chechen war (1994-96).

Putin strengthened the relationship further, beginning his rule by abrogating the Gore-Chenonymdin agreement under which Russia was to cease selling arms to Iran by 2000. While Putin and Iran were to have some problems over Chechnya and the optimal exit route for Caspian Sea oil and natural gas, these were overcome by 2005 when Iran emerged?despite its clandestine nuclear program?as Putin?s most important ally in the Middle East, as Russia sought to reemerge as a major power there. Moscow increasingly became Iran?s protector against the sanctions that first the United States and then the European Union sought to impose because of Iran?s violation of international agreements. Putin?s policy on Iran, however, contained some serious risks for Moscow, including a sharply deteriorating relationship with the United States and the possibility that newly-elected Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, an Islamic fundamentalist, might one day challenge Russia over its policy in Chechyna.


Of all the nations of the Middle East, Russia?s closest relationship is with the Islamic Republic of Iran. While Russia?s sale of the Bushehr nuclear power station is central to Iranian-Russian relations, a number of other facets of the relationship are of almost equal importance. These include trade, which by 2005 reached the level of $2 billion per year,2 Russian arms sales to Iran which include jet fighters and submarines, and diplomatic cooperation in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Both countries also have sought to prevent U.S. hegemony in the world. While several areas of conflict in the relationship remain, the most important of which is the legal status of the Caspian Sea, by February 2005 when Moscow and Iran signed an agreement for the supply of Russian uranium to the Bushehr reactor, the two countries can be said to have reached the level of a tactical, if not yet a strategic alliance.

After assessing Putin?s domestic and foreign policies and briefly reviewing Russian-Iranian relations in the Yeltsin era, this mongraph will analyze Putin?s policy toward Iran, especially in regard to the nuclear issue.


One central conclusion can be drawn from this study of Putin?s policy via-à-vis Iran?s nuclear program. It is that Moscow, through most of Putin?s presidency, has been badly torn between its desire to maintain good relations with Iran, on the one hand Russia?s diplomatic ally in many sensitive areas of Eurasia and a major purchaser of Russian arms (a $1 billion arms deal was signed just after the November 2005 IAEA meeting) and nuclear equipment. On the other hand, Russia is feeling increasing pressure from the international community, especially the EU and the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Moscow has been on the horns of a dilemma on the Iranian nuclear issue because it does not want to alienate Iran, but neither does it want to alienate the EU or the United States, nor does it wish Iran to acquire nuclear weapons as Russian President Putin has said on numerous occasions. For this reason, Russia, until February 2005, sought to chart a middle course between Iran and the West seeking to minimize the damage to its relations with Iran, while at the same time seeking to respond to pressure from the United States and EU.

The pressure on Russia came in two forms. First, although the United States in particular was unhappy with Russia?s decision to construct a nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr, at the minimum it called for the repatriation of the reactor?s spent fuel to Russia, so that it could not be diverted into nuclear weapons. Russia complied with this request?despite Iranian opposition?and an agreement to this effect was signed in February 2005. It should also be noted that completion of the reactor was delayed repeatedly, although to what degree this was due to ?technical difficulties? or to Russian pressure on Iran to sign the fuel repatriation agreement is not yet known. Even though the agreement has been signed?in the face of U.S. protests?it will be important to monitor closely how both Russia and Iran adhere to it given that the reactor is now due to become operational in late 2007, and that Putin clearly has drawn closer to Iran since February 2005 to compensate for his losses in Georgia, Ukraine, and Beslan.

A second area of pressure from the EU and the United States has related to Iranian efforts to hide parts of its nuclear program, something that became evident in December 2002. In the face of U.S. calls to impose UN sanctions on Iran, Russia joined with the EU to get Iranian acceptance of the additional protocol to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty which allows the IAEA to make unannounced inspection visits to Iranian nuclear installations.

Nonetheless, as negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran faltered in 2005 over a comprehensive agreement to give Iran economic and security benefits in return for abandoning its plans for a full nuclear cycle, there were new revelations about Iran hiding parts of its nuclear program, and calls were renewed for UN sanctions against Iran. Two new developments that had coalesced by the Fall of 2005 complicated matters for Moscow and exacerbated its problem of choice. The first was a marked increase in the level of cooperation between the EU-3 and the United States over Iran, along with the electoral defeat of German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder who had opposed U.S. policy on Iran. Thus Moscow, for the first time, had to deal with a U.S.-EU alignment on Iran. The second factor was the election of a hard-line Islamic leader, Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, as President of Iran, who not only contemptuously rejected the EU-3 plan presented in August 2005, but, by threatening to wipe Israel off the face of the map and asserting that the Holocaust was a ?myth,? raised serious questions about what Iranian leaders proclaimed were the ?peaceful? intentions of their nuclear program. The end result was an IAEA Board of Governors statement in September 2005 that threatened Iran with the possibility of sanctions, a statement on which Russia abstained.

While Russia was able to defer a possible sanctions effort against Iran at the November 2005 IAEA meeting by negotiating a compromise offer to Iran with the EU3?supported by the United States?which allowed Tehran to have its fuel enriched in Russia in return for abandoning its plans for a full nuclear cycle, Iran has refused to accept the offer, and should it not do so, perhaps counting on a U.S. unwillingness to use military force against Iran at a time of record high oil prices, or hoping for a Russian (or Chinese) veto of a UN Security Council sanctions resolution, Russia will be hard put to decide what to do. While it had sought to put that day of decision off as long as possible, the time may be coming sooner rather than later when Moscow will have to choose between Iran and the West. Indeed, Moscow?s behavior before and during the UN Security Council?s debate on Iran in March 2006?criticizing Iran but opposing sanctions would appear to demonstrate that Moscow, while trying to put off a decision as long as possible, has now tilted to Iran. Exacerbating the situation has been Iran?s mid-April 2006 announcement that it is now a nuclear power because it successfully enriched uranium by means of a centrifuge cascade, and its prohibition on the IAEA from making surprise inspections, thus breaking a series of agreements it had made with the EU-3, which Russia had supported.

If one looks at Russia?s behavior from the time it finally agreed to provide nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor in February 2005 through its opposing sanctions when Iran broke its agreement with the EU-3 in August 2005, and later resumed nuclear enrichment, along with Moscow?s decision to supply sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to protect Iran?s nuclear installations in November 2005, it would appear that Moscow, despite its rhetoric, has decided to acquiesce in Iran?s nuclear program, most probably because of Putin?s policy of enhancing Russian prestige in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, at the expense of the United States. Russia?s policy, however, of dragging out negotiations as long as possible, while protecting Iran from sanctions, contains both benefits and risks for Moscow. On the benefit side, it certainly strengthens Moscow?s relations with Iran, while at the same time, by keeping oil prices high, it clearly helps the Russian economy. On the negative side, the policy carries a number of risks for Putin. First, Iran?s new President is an Islamic ?true-believer.? Unlike his predecessors, who were willing to tolerate Russian policy in Chechnya where Russian soldiers have killed thousands of Muslim Chechens, Ahmadinizhad may one day decide that his Islamic beliefs obligate him to confront Russia on this issue. Were Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons during this confrontation, Moscow may wish it had supported sanctions against Iran when it had the opportunity. Second, and a more immediate concern for Moscow, is that, as Iran draws closer to a nuclear weapons capability, the possibility of a U.S. (or Israeli) strike on Iran?s nuclear facilities increases. Moscow, therefore, soon may be faced with the choice of agreeing to limited sanctions or acquiescing in another U.S. attack on one of its allies. Whether Putin would be able to finesse such a choice is a very open question.


2. Ibid.