Russia's Iran strategy
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcoming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during their bilateral meeting in Shanghai, 15 June 2006. (Getty Images
February 17th, 2012
10:30 AM ET

Russia's Iran strategy

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance. Also, be sure to visit the blog, Russian Military Reform.

In response to Tehran's announcement of advances in its civilian nuclear capabilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 15 urged the international community to re-engage Iran in serious negotiations, with the aim of forestalling the development of a credible nuclear weapons program. While Russia is often portrayed as uncritically supportive of Iran, the bilateral relationship is more complicated than it appears.

Most Russian corporates have complied with international sanctions, which have made it difficult for multinationals to pursue opportunities in Iran. Large contracts have been repeatedly called off or postponed. Yet economic cooperation, especially in the civilian aviation, telecom and hydrocarbons sectors, remains significant.

While Iran used to be one of Russia's leading defense industry customers, this relationship has almost completely collapsed in the wake of President Dmitry Medvedev's September 2010 decision to ban sales of missile systems, armored vehicles, warplanes, helicopters and ships to Iran. This went beyond the U.N.-mandated sanctions. Since then, Russian military sales have been limited to equipment needed to modernize previously transferred anti-aircraft defense systems and electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems.

While bilateral ties have been periodically difficult, Moscow is well aware of Iran's important geopolitical role - not just in the Middle East, but also Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian leaders have long believed that protests such as the 2009 Green Movement could destabilize a great many states in Russia's 'south', and this view has only been confirmed by the 'Arab awakenings'. They also fear that an Israeli strike on Iran would be the first step in a regional conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East and generate massive refugee flows into Russia via Azerbaijan. At the same time, Russian policymakers are also concerned about the possibility of Iran creating instability on Russia's southern border, especially in light of difficult relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Russian military planners recently announced that next autumn's large-scale military exercise would take place in the Caucasus and involve the premise of a war that begins with an attack on Iran, but turns into a regional conflict that draws in Russia.

Russian leaders believe that Iran already has the technical ability and materials to build a nuclear weapon should it choose to do so. For this reason, it opposes the use of air strikes (or other military means) to damage the Iranian nuclear program. The logic is that while military strikes would certainly set back the program in the short term, they would only reinforce Iran's determination to acquire a nuclear weapon in order to deter potential future attacks. From Russia's perspective, negotiations are thus the only means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.

Russia would like to see a comprehensive agreement, whereby Tehran agrees to stop its nuclear weapons program in return for the end of sanctions and reintegration of Iran into the international community. Should Iran make the first aggressive move by following through on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Russia will benefit in the short term from higher oil prices. However, this would be more than off-set by a subsequent intensification of regional instability. Over the longer term, Russia would be best served by stable oil prices, not extremely high ones.

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Topics: Iran • Russia

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. S.V.P.YADAV

    About Russain external affairs depending on liberal and enthusiasm.In IRAN concerns,Russia sold so maney products IRAN and fuel imports very least rates.In this big dealing some times possible to co-operate with IRAN in any issue According to that,Russia and China will attack to U.S.posibility is there.

    February 17, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
  2. jal

    Point of inquiry: At what point did negotiations with the Syrian govt become mut.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
  3. BBC

    They look like identical twins.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
  4. George Patton

    The Russians have the right idea here. The American public is just to ignorant to see that as they see war as another sporting even just like a football game. Contrary to the belief of most Americans, there is absolutely no glory in war and the war with Iran must be averted at all costs!!! Let's all hope that the efforts on the part of the Russians succeed!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  5. stmichaeltraveler

    Only fools start a war!. Only our sons and daughters give their life and people pay the price. War is a sport for losers.

    February 18, 2012 at 12:37 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Very well said, stmichaeltraveler. Thank you.

      February 18, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • glennrobert

      Got shot at in Korea and you are right! The second Iraq war was totally illegal and cot 4500 young Americans and several hundred thousand Iraqi lives!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:42 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    The energy-rich Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country with two thirds of Shia and one third Sunni Muslims, has a secular – but highly corrupted – government and borders on Iran. It's ruling circles walk a tightrope between Russian, Western and regional geo-strategic interests. It has friendly ties with Israel and the US, Recently it has angrily denied an Iranian claim that it has been helping Israeli spies plotting against Iran. The Azeri-Iranian relations have long been strained over the large ethnic Azeri minority in northern Iran. Azerbaijan had been in Persian hands on and off for over 1000 years and saw other occupiers before it gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin sees the stability in Transcaucasia of vital relevance for its southern border and in Central Asia.

    February 18, 2012 at 5:37 am | Reply
  7. Damien

    Russia is secretly helping Iran to build a nuclear weapon. When NATO's back is turned they will start another world war that will be terrible.

    February 18, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Wrong, Damien. NATO will never turn it's back on what it wants and right now, that's Iran's oil and therein lies the problem!!!

      February 18, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  8. matt a.

    Vladimir Putin is having a devil of a time coming across as a reformist and humanatarian, what with his close ties to Iran and Syria.

    I wonder if its all in the interest of preserving his financial interests, or , maybe its all about "goodwill."

    As if a former KGB . . . .

    February 18, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  9. Nwaogu Godfrey. E

    With Vladimir Putin coming fully back . the west should by now be having cold, because its not gonna be a jolly ride in the days to come.Putins understands the politics of the west,especially western europe....He knows wher the corps are buried.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:04 am | Reply
  10. US Citizen

    I think Russia should offer to mediate between Iran and the West. I think the people of the US have respect for Russia but we do not trust Iran. I am sure Iran would trust Russia more than the West also. It could stop a war if Russia would offer to do this.

    February 24, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  11. Amp5712

    Here is a solution:

    Have the Russians, with UN approval, run the nuclear power plant. However, the Russians should be fully at the helm of the project, as well as report to the UN on the situation and events. If Iran isn't creating nuclear arms, they shouldn't have a problem. Iranians get their nuclear power, Russia plays a peace keeping role, and West can relax.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:46 am | Reply
  12. Peter

    Why should Russia comply with its enemies and sanction Iran?

    March 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  13. Olga

    i think they sleeping together.

    March 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply

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