Vienna, November 7 – Moscow’s efforts in recent months to play “the Iran card” against the West reflect a dangerous misapplication of the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and are leaving the Kremlin with few good options, according to a leading Russian specialist on foreign policy in southwest Asia.
In an interview in “Moskovsky komsomolets” today, Ivan Danilin, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), argues that the Russian government has fallen into the trap of considering Iran largely in terms of Moscow’s relationship with the United States (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2008/11/07/society/379918/).
Reacting to the West’s support for Georgia, he says, Moscow backed Iran in the Un Security Council, watering down what was in any case “a toothless resolution” to the point that it is surprising the Americans were willing to go along. They did so, he suggests, only to be able to say that the six-country group on Iran was still functioning.
But the other things Moscow has done in the name of supporting Iran, Danilin argues, such as increasing cooperation with Tehran or selling arms, including anti-aircraft guns have been “more public relations exercises” than anything else, especially now that the completion of the Bushehr nuclear facility is approaching.
Danilin adds that he has the feeling that after that event, now scheduled to take place in February 2009, Moscow will propose “something to Tehran” because without Bushehr, Russia will lose “a serious instrument of pressure” on Iran. Consequently, Moscow is likely to offer a contract involving nuclear power or weapons.
Some in Moscow assume that Russia must back Iran because of the threat of an American attack, something that would raise questions elsewhere about the Kremlin’s reliability as an ally. But Danilin says, an American attack is unlikely given Washington’s involvement in Iraq and the difficulty of its reaching key targets with carrier-based aviation.
Consequently, the IMEMO analyst continues, the Americans will continue to try to pressure Iran through the use of sanctions, but the Europeans will end run those efforts, thus making anything Moscow might do in this regard symbolic but not terribly significant in practice.
All these factors should but often are not taken into account in Moscow’s policy making, but the most important factors, he suggest, are to be found elsewhere: Russia would not benefit from Iran’s becoming a nuclear power, and Moscow stands to lose geopolitically and economically if Iran becomes a more important player in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Fortunately, he says, it does not seem likely that Iran wants to become a nuclear power anytime soon either. While Tehran has ignored Moscow’s advice to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at least for show, Iranian officials have told Danilin that they want the capacity to go nuclear quickly but not to go nuclear now.
But unfortunately, Iran’s influence in Central Asia and the south Caucasus, Russia’s “near abroad” where Moscow wants to remain the dominant power, is growing rapidly. In addition to the impact of Iran’s Islamic message, Tehran can and does offer investments and most important pipeline routes to the outside world that bypass Russia.
Moscow appears to be counting on American efforts to isolate Iran to limit at least for a time Tehran’s influence in this regard, but with a growing demand for fuel, Danilin points out, American policies could change and Iran is set to promote itself as the shortest and least expensive way out for oil and gas from this region.
That would be a real threat to Russia’s interests, but instead of focusing on that, Moscow appears content to operate on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” an approach Danilin says leaves Russia in “a foolish position” where it will ultimately have to choose among undesirable outcomes rather than working to promote its own interests.