Iran’s ballistic missile tests last week have sparked unusually harsh criticism from Russia. According to the BBC, Russian officials have said the tests
This is remarkable coming from Moscow, and the latest sign of a potentially significant shift in Russia’s stance on Iran. Through 2007, Russia was the main obstacle in UNSC efforts to tighten the thumb screws on Iran, preferring bilateral diplomacy with Tehran over the international sanctions route.
This January, however, Russia finally agreed to a third sanctions resolution. Moscow also opposes the efforts of South Africa to delay the resolution. South Africa, which holds a non-permanent UNSC seat and is an influential member of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries, wants to wait until IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei finishes his meddlesome freelance diplomacy with Iran before proceeding—presumably in the hopes that ElBaradei gives Iran a clean bill of health, which could undermine the prospects for a unanimous or near-unanimous UNSC vote. The Russians, however, want the resolution to move forward sooner rather than later.
The Russians are now criticizing Iran’s enrichment and ballistic missile programs in the same breath. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that
In the span of just a few months, Russia has gone from denying an Iranian nuclear weapons program and foot-dragging on sanctions to drawing explicit linkages between Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and pushing a third sanctions resolution.
So what changed Russia’s tack?
There are a number of possibilities, none mutually exclusive. Perhaps something in the intelligence the United States recently shared with the IAEA (and presumably some UNSC countries) on key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program spooked the Russians. Or maybe Moscow, like many Western governments, is ticked off at ElBaradei for playing shadow UN Secretary-General and wants the UNSC to reassert its authority. News of Iran’s apparent progress on P-2/IR-2 centrifuges may worry them as well.
I suspect that the main driver, however, is the remarkable shift in U.S. politics in the aftermath of the November 2007 Iran NIE. The NIE’s headline finding that Iran abandoned nuclear warhead and weaponization R&D in the fall of 2003 has eliminated the possibility of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities for the foreseeable future. This frees up Russia and other countries to toe a harder line against Iran without worrying about legitimating U.S. military action.
If this interpretation is true, it means that the litany of pundits and commentators complaining that the NIE plays right into Iran’s hands have it exactly backwards: by effectively taking U.S. military action off the table for now, the NIE makes it easier, not harder, for countries like Russia to send Iran a stronger signal about its enrichment program. After all, Russia (and China, for that matter) do not want Iran to develop the capability to deploy nuclear weapons; until the Iran NIE, however, this concern was counterbalanced by a worry that the United States might launch another war in the Middle East.
(Joe Cirincione and I made an argument along these lines in our Contain and Engage strategy released last March. See page 45.)
Russia’s shift is good news, but sticks alone won’t compel Iran to capitulate. The Bush administration needs to get serious about offering Iran credible inducements, which it has proven chronically unable—or unwilling—to do.