BROOKS FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW: ANALYSIS
October 7, 2009
by Webster Brooks, Editor BFPR
Since assuming office, the nexus of President Obama’s diplomacy to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon has focused on convincing Russia to endorse tougher sanctions against Tehran and scaling back its support of their nuclear program. Instead, Moscow has attempted to leverage the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to improve its own geo-strategic position by undermining American power in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. The chances that President Obama will secure meaningful Russian support to halt Iran’s nuclear program are remote for two reasons. First, as Defense Secretary Gates recently stated, Iran’s uranium enrichment program has advanced too far to be stopped, even if the U.S. or Israel launches air strikes against its nuclear sites. Second, Moscow regards Iran as a strategic ally. Russia’s national security interests will not be threatened, but enhanced by a nuclear armed Iran. President Obama cannot be faulted for negotiating with Russia to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, the political assumptions underlying President Obama’s overtures to Moscow are troubling. It remains to be seen if President Obama’s desire to “reset” relations with Moscow means that he regards Russia as a potential ally, strategic competitor or strategic adversary. Clearly, the nature of Russia’s involvement with Iran’s nuclear program and its actions strongly conflict with America’s national security interests. Thus a valid question arises; what does the President Obama want from Russia and what is he prepared to concede to Moscow?
Moscow’s position in Iran is formidable and multi-faceted. Over the past two years, Russia has actively strengthened its position in Iran and the Persian Gulf. In February 2009 Russian scientists completed Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor that can produce enough nuclear material for thirty atomic bombs a year (off the books). Russia and Iran signed a ten-year nuclear fuel contract to operate Bushehr after Moscow provided the technical expertise, nuclear fuel, equipment, parts, and other components for the reactor. Russia is also receiving spent fuel from Iran to reprocess into low-grade enriched uranium material. In March 2009, Moscow also began executing its contract to deliver advanced long-range S-300 air-defense systems to Iran. Combined with its purchase of the Russian made TOR-M1 surface-to-air system, Iran is racing to deploy its own missile defense shield in an effort to discourage if not complicate possible airstrikes against their nuclear sites. If Iran is able to field a credible defense missile shield system around its nuclear sites and platforms for medium and short range missiles, Tehran’s capacity to project power in the Persian Gulf will be greatly enhanced.
Iran’s missile and nuclear program are exerting tremendous pressure on the U.S., NATO and its regional allies. When President Obama cancelled the missile defense shield plans for Poland and the Czech Republic on September 17, it was widely suggested that he caved in to Russia to win Putin’s support for stronger sanctions against Iran. Arguably, President Obama and NATO’s revised plan to more quickly deploy a comprehensive mobile land, sea and space- based missile interceptor system across Europe and the Caucuses could hardly be considered capitulation. Nevertheless, Russia is clearly angling for opportunities to sow confusion and discord in the U.S.-led NATO Alliance, which it regards as an adversarial block.
In addition to Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, Moscow is also preparing to come to Tehran’s aid should the U.S. impose sanctions targeting gasoline imports to Iran. Currently, imported gasoline products make up one-third of the country’s consumption, most of which are shipped to Iran through the Persian Gulf. Sanctions on Iranian gas imports could devastate the Iranian regime and economy, thereby forcing Tehran to make real concessions on its nuclear program. Iran is importing more than 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) and has already started stockpiling gasoline in preparation for possible sanctions. Russia and other former Soviet states would be able to fill Iran’s basic import needs by ship and rail transport from the north and the Caspian Sea basin. Russia is one of the largest refiners of oil products in the world and could increase its capacity to supply Iran with refined gasoline for a considerable period of time. Moscow would also reap massive profits from a spike in energy prices if sanctions are imposed. Tehran’s dependency on Russia would also increase if sanctions on gas imports are enacted; something the U.S. wishes to avoid. Along with gas imports from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Malaysia, Iran could survive sanctions on imported gasoline which is considered the strongest weapon in President Obama’s arsenal to nudge Iran off the nuclear weapons path. Russia’s strategic relationship with Iran on its nuclear program, weapons sales and energy issues is vital to Russian national security interests. Moscow is not only seeking a beachhead in the energy rich Persian Gulf that challenges U.S. supremacy, but Russia desperately wants to secure its southern perimeter in the Caucuses. Fearful of militant Muslim movements like Chechnya spreading among the 20 million Muslims within its borders, Moscow has reached an understanding with Iran not to fan the flames of Shiia Muslim extremism in Russia, the Southern Caucuses or bordering Central Asia states. At the same time that Russia is buttressing Iran as a strategic ally in the Persian Gulf, Moscow has started building a counterweight to Iran by initiating arms sales to its chief regional rival; Saudi Arabia. In 2008, King Abdullah agreed to a $4 billion deal to purchase 150 Russian T-9 tanks, 100 MI-17 and MI-35 tanks hundreds of BMP Armored Infantry Combat Vehicles and 20 BVIC air defense systems. Putin also offered the Saudi’s nuclear reactors and cooperation on a space program to invest in launching Saudi satellites. Abdullah’s shift to allow the Russians arms sales shocked the United States and Western Europe who fear Moscow’s growing role in the Persian Gulf.
For all these reasons, President Obama’s attempts to cut a deal with Russia to shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program are fraught with danger. The price Moscow is demanding to halt its support of Iran’s nuclear program is American acknowledgement that Central Asia is within Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. It is not a price President Obama can afford to pay. Nor can Russia guarantee that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be thwarted.
In the aftermath of the October 1 meetings in Geneva between the P-5+1 and Iran, President Obama said “Talk is no substitute for action. Our patience is not unlimited. If Iran fails to live up to its promises of cooperation, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely and we are prepared to move toward increased pressure.” Obama gave Iran two weeks to allow the newly disclosed uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom to be inspected by the I.A.E.A . Obama also urged Iranian to ship low-enriched uranium to a third country to further process the material for use in a research reactor in Tehran. Obama said “Taking the step of transferring its low-enriched uranium to a third country would be a step toward building confidence that Iran’s program is in fact peaceful.” According to reports Russia agreed to perform the further processing of low-enriched uranium from Iran. France would fabricate it into fuel assemblies for use at the Tehran research reactor, which is under international inspection. All the parties to the talks agreed to return to the negotiating table in late October to continue discussions. Iran will likely concede to inspections of the Qom facility, as they were caught red-handed trying to conceal the existence of the facility. It is also possible that Iran may agree to ship “some” of its spent fuel to outside countries (principally Russia). But under no circumstances will Tehran agree to suspend their uranium enrichment activities. Thus the stage is set for yet another showdown in late October. As part of the P-5+1 group Russia will play a critical role in the outcome of the talks. That should give President Obama pause for concern. ***
Webster Brooks is a Senior at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP) and Editor of Brooks Foreign Policy Review, the international affairs arm of CNPP. His articles on foreign policy have appeared in numerous newspapers and websites in the Middle East, Eurasia and in the United States. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org The Center for New Politics and Policy is based in Washington, D.C.