A Response to Dmitry Peskov
In a recent interview with National Interest online, President Putin's first deputy secretary, Dmitry Peskov, firmly asserted that Russia is "the last country in this world that would want to have a nuclear weapon at its southern borders."
The current Russian policy in the region, however, indicates otherwise. After Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani publicly mused in 2001 that the "application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel", and despite an International Atomic Energy Agency finding that Iran was in non-compliance with the safeguards agreement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Mr. Peskov refers to Iran's right to "peaceful nuclear energy." As such, Moscow habitually rejects comprehensive sanctions against Tehran and has effectively stalled the process by brandishing its veto power at the UN Security Council.
With the nuclear issue on the backburner, the Iranian regime is actively equipping and training militia groups and death squads operating in Iraq-without forgetting to dole out generous support to Hizballah and Hamas for actively terrorizing the Israeli population. Contrary to its supposed "partners in the war on terror" in the West, Russia considers neither group to be a terrorist organization. Moreover, after gaining control of the Palestinian parliament, Hamas representatives took up President Putin's generous offer to visit Moscow last spring. Conspicuously, just days before the visit, local authorities in provincial towns of Volgograd and Vologda shut down two regional newspapers for reprinting the infamous "Muhammad cartoons."
The doublethink on Iran and its proxies reflects a wider struggle in elucidating Russia's Middle East policy-how does a nation balance vulnerability to Islamic extremism in its predominantly Muslim backyard with the continued support for a regime that can potentially-and fatally-endanger global security?
Russian and Iranian interests are historically divergent, with perceived spheres of influence overlapping in the Caucasus and the Caspian. In 1828, when the Russian tsar sent a diplomatic mission to negotiate the settlement terms of the second Russo-Persian war (the Treaty of Turkmanchai, which stipulated Iran's surrender of modern-day Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), a frenzied mob massacred practically the entire delegation six months later. Among those killed was chief envoy and famous Russian playwright Alexandr Griboyedov, whose crime apparently consisted of not removing his boots in front of the Shah.
Ideologically, the two states could also not be further apart. The 1979 Islamic Revolution may have shattered Iran's alliance with the United States, but neither did it bring Tehran and Moscow any closer. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini purged leftists from the revolutionary coalition and considered the Soviet Union "godless." In 1989, Khomeini penned a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, urging the Soviet leader "to seriously investigate Islam-not because Islam or the Muslims need you, but because Islam can bring comfort and salvation to all people and solve the problems of all nations."
While reality got in the way of realizing the Ayatollah's dream, Iran did expand relations with Russia after the Soviet collapse. On August 25, 1992, Tehran and Moscow signed an US $800 million deal for Russian companies to build two nuclear reactors at Bushehr, as well as committed to sales of military hardware. During the lean and tumultuous 1990s, when oil prices bottomed out and Russia painfully deconstructed its command economy, the hard currency may have proved essential to prop-up the vast military-industrial complex. As Viktor Mikhailov, Russia's then-minister of nuclear energy, stated: "What could Russia have brought onto world markets? We only had one strength: our scientific and technical potential." Yet in 1995, after considerable American pressure, Boris Yeltsin halted weapons deliveries to Iran.
Economic considerations are hardly a concern for the current Russian government. The flow of petrodollars cleared all of the country's external debts and bumped gold and foreign currency reserves to nearly $300 billion-with another $90 billion stashed in the rainy-day Stabilization Fund, accrued from windfall oil profits. With confident stride, Russia has begun to write off debts to poorer nations.