In the nuclear standoff with Iran, over the years both Europe and the U.S. have consistently pursued a multilateral strategy. Despite considerable delays and watered-down accomplishments, in early 2006 the strategy yielded a first result: the IAEA Board of Governors referred Iran to the UN Security Council for its noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Soon after, to Iran’s great dismay, the council passed resolution 1696. In December 2006 and soon after in March 2007, Resolutions 1737 and 1747 were unanimously approved, introducing sanctions against Iran. But then it took an additional year to get more sanctions — and the new resolution 1803 only added a few names to the already less-than-satisfactory list of entities and individuals targeted by the sanctions. Since then, nothing more than a reaffirmation of these sanctions has made it through the Security Council.
Much of the stalling is attributed to Russia — with the Chinese conveniently hiding behind Russia’s obstructionism. Much of President Obama’s “reset” strategy was presented as an attempt to turn Russia away from obstructionism and ensure that Moscow cooperates.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if this worked? Western diplomats have lost years trying to stick to a united international strategy. The results it yielded are meager — and their effect is questionable. But there is no doubt that turning Russia around to support sanctions against Iran (and maybe more) would be a great achievement, one that would obviate at least some of the drawbacks of delays and watered-down sanctions.
But can Russia be turned around?
Seth Robinson at the New Republic offers a good rebuttal of that widely held multilateral faith in bringing Russia in from the cold:
"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."
Robinson offers more reasons: Iran’s role in the Caspian oil trade; the potential benefits for Russia in setting up an energy cartel with Tehran; and the leverage that the Iranian nuclear program confers upon Russia vis-à-vis the West.
I would add three more considerations:
- Russia sees Iran as its entry point into the Middle East; it is a gateway to regaining lost influence in a key strategic region;
- Russia does not see an Iranian nuclear arsenal as an existential threat — it knows Russia ranks low in Tehran’s list of mortal enemies;
- Russia remembers how poorly its interests were served by a Western-friendly Iran during the Shah era. Pushing the regime too far on the nuclear issue might engender the kind of sea change in Tehran that could damage Russia’s long-term interests. The last thing Russia wishes to see is Iran’s return as a Western ally.
This does not mean that Russia necessarily views a nuclear Iran with favor. But given that Iran provides a lucrative market to Russia’s nuclear and military industries, given that Iran may help Russia thwart Western efforts to reduce their dependency on Russian and Middle East energy, given that Iran helps Russia in its efforts to contain Western dominance, given that it is better to keep Iran as a Western foe (and therefore to keep this regime from losing control), given all of the above, why should Russia be of any help?
Multilateralists may answer that Russia will ultimately come around because it cannot possibly want a nuclear Iran on its doorstep.
There are two answers to that. One, Russia may dismiss Iran’s technological prowess and think the Iranians will never come around to master the required science to build a bomb — it may be a wrong assessment but one that fits views of the non-Slavic world that hold purchase in certain Russian policy-making circles. The Russians may also think that in any case, sooner or later, Israel or the U.S. (or both) will attack and destroy the Iranian program. So why be seen as hostile in Tehran? They’ll be free riders, benefiting from the attack politically (no nukes on their borders) and economically (Russian contractors will clear the rubble and rebuild the damaged infrastructure).
In short, Russia benefits from a middle ground between the absence of war and the absence of peace. It will continue to play its cards and leave the West stuck in that place. Plain and simple, its interests are not our own. More efforts to bring Russia on board and thus deny cover for China will be a waste of time.
Bottom line — don’t wait for Russia.