A Response to Dmitry Peskov

A Response to Dmitry Peskov

Russia’s commitment to a non-nuclear Iran is less sincere than it claims.

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.

But one of the first steps of Putin's presidency was to resume the sales of weapons to the Iranian regime. Recently, Moscow has landed somewhere around $1 billion for the sale of 29 Tor-M1 missile complexes, giving Tehran the ability to earnestly defend their "nuclear right." While these sophisticated systems may not render Iran's various strategic sites invincible, they nevertheless add a formidable layer of protection against potential U.S. or Israeli air strikes. On a visit to Jerusalem in 2005, however, President Putin firmly reassured the Israelis that "[Russia has] not taken a single step to disrupt the balance of forces and we will follow that pattern in the future."

Russia's resurgent realpolitik has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East. Recently, the Arab and Iranian press roundly lauded Russia's assertive role in the region. But at whose expense? As BBC correspondent and Middle East expert Konstantin Eggert explained in Lebanon's Daily Star: "The rationale for Russia's new course in the Middle East lies in the same motivation that drives Moscow's foreign policy as a whole: primarily, deep dislike of the United States combined with a desire to at least partly avenge Russia's defeat in the Cold War."

Moscow's policy toward Tehran could also cost it in areas where Russia-U.S. partnership has blossomed. Congress may well decide to vote down the recent "123 agreement", which allows greater collaboration in civilian nuclear energy. The Russian government, which agreed to host spent U.S. nuclear fuel on its territory, would stand to lose an estimated $20 billion. In addition, several Russian companies have already been sanctioned by Washington for supplying hardware toTehran, including state weapons manufacturer Rosoboronexport.

With the gradually worsening state of affairs between Russia and the West, it now becomes the job of officials such as Mr. Peskov, but ultimately, President Putin himself, to convince Moscow's "partners in the war on terror" otherwise.

Igor Khrestin is a Russian Studies researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. John Elliott is a research associate in Russia and Eurasia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Their most recent essay on Russia's Middle East policy in the Middle East Quarterly is available here.