US President Barack Obama's recent decision to cancel the deployment of an anti-missile defense (AMD) system in Eastern Europe was met with approval by the Russian authorities. In exchange, speaking at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev changed his position regarding sanctions against Iran.
While Russia had, until recently, vetoed UN Security Council resolutions against the Iranian nuclear program, Medvedev suddenly hardened his rhetoric, mentioning sanctions as a possible course of action. Either way, it is quite clear that Russia, which borders Iran on the Caspian Sea, does not fear the emergence of its new nuclear neighbor and is even actively aiding the construction of the nuclear station in Iran. Why? The reasons are manifold.
RUSSIA HAS traditionally maintained good sources of information within Iran. Its specialists, who are closely involved in the construction of the nuclear site, probably have information that is unknown to the rest of the world. For example, these sources may indicate that Iran is still rather far from creating the bomb, or perhaps they believe they can control the process.
Similarly, Russia's strategic and tactical interests cannot be ignored. Russia is probably unhappy with nuclear weapons being positioned so close to its own territory, yet seems sure that these weapons won't pose a threat to its sovereignty. This is because Russia stands to benefit greatly from Iran's opposition vis-a-vis the United States and the United Nations Security Council, for two reasons: First, Iran is primarily a threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This will increase regional tensions and strengthen Russia's position there. Good relations with Iran could position Russia as a mediator between these countries and the Islamic republic. For example, the recent cancellation of the deal to sell Iran anti-aircraft complexes was used to leverage Russia-Israel relations.
Second, Russia can use its relations with Iran as a bargaining chip in opposing the United States. The latest events demonstrate how, by changing its position toward sanctions, Russia achieved its goal: canceling the AMD program, despite its having been approved by the previous US administration.
Further, Russia isn't willing to forgo its economic relations with Iran. It benefits from the construction of a nuclear power station as it competes for supplying the necessary raw materials and supplies Iran with different types of weapons (including anti-aircraft), not to mention regular trade. This is probably one of the main reasons Russia is interested in preserving good relations with Iran.
Another factor worth mentioning is the issue of religion. Iran traditionally opposes radical Salafi Sunni Islamic movements such as that practiced by the Taliban and the Wahabiyya, which have become a serious threat in Russia's northern Caucasus area, especially Dagestan. These common enemies unite Russia and Iran.
Finally, Russia and Iran are both significant suppliers of oil to the world market. Every increase of political tension in the region influences oil prices, from which Russia can only gain. This is especially true during times of military conflict.
The fact of the matter remains that Russia does not believe in sanctions. For these reasons, Moscow benefits more than suffers from today's status quo. This set of Russian national interests further complicates the Iranian nuclear crisis - and illustrates that only a great level of creative diplomacy might resolve it.
The writer is an associate fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies and a research fellow in the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The article was first published by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, at the Shalem Center, www.adelsoninstitute.org