What Does Russia Hope to Gain By Being Soft on Iran?

Russia, it seems, has effectively used the Iranian nuclear issue to its advantage. On his visit to Moscow this past July, President Obama agreed to scrap U.S. plans to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic as part of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe. The Obama administration insisted that it did not expect a quid pro quo from the Russians on Iran, but “hoped” that Russia would not oppose tougher sanctions on Iran if it fails to live up to its international obligations.

Although Russian President Medvedev seemed to have expressed a change of heart at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh regarding sanctions against Iran, Russia has consistently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program. Does the new rhetoric coming out of Moscow signal a strategic about-face by Putin/Medvedev?


At a joint press conference in Moscow with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on October 13, 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated: “The threat of sanctions against Iran would be counterproductive.” He resisted U.S. efforts to win agreement for measures if Iran fails to prove its nuclear program is peaceful. Lavrov’s boss Vladimir Putin -- the real power in Russia -- declared while on an official visit to China: "There is no need to frighten the Iranians." He added: "We need to look for a compromise. If a compromise is not found, and the discussions end in a fiasco, then we will see."

Iranian proximity to the Russian border on the Caspian Sea should make Moscow at least a little edgy about Tehran’s quest for nuclear arms -- and yet to date, Russia has shown no signs that it is willing to go along with Western actions against Iran. Moreover, Russia continues to supply Iran with nuclear technology and weapons, and together with China it has opposed tougher sanctions against Iran.

It certainly appears that Russia is not as apprehensive about a nuclear Iran as Israel and the U.S. are. Nor, for that matter, is it as worried as America’s European and Arab allies are. And as we know, Russian nuclear scientists, technicians, and specialists are operating inside Iran on the construction of an Iranian nuclear site. It should come as no surprise if we learn that some of these specialists are employed by the Russian intelligence services, and that they have been reporting back on the progress Iran has made. It is conceivable that from the inside it may appear that the Iranian technological progress is slower than imagined.

The Russians -- who occupied northern Iran during WWII -- may very well feel confident that they can control Tehran’s actions if and when it becomes necessary. Naturally, just as the Iranians deceived the world about the existence of the uranium enrichment facility in Qom, they might very well fool the Russian snoopers of their real progress.