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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

On October 25, an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the recently-revealed Iranian nuclear facility near Qom. The visit comes as Tehran debates a new initiative by the US, France, and Russia, which would send most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment and processing into fuel rods respectively. Thus, the international community hopes to prevent Tehran from producing highly-enriched uranium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.

One party, at least, is probably quite satisfied with the delay in Iran’s response. Russia has, despite agreeing to take part in the US-sponsored deal, so far shown no inclination to shift from its noncommittal position on Iran. Whether or not Russia is willing to ‘get tough’ on Tehran has been the subject of endless speculation ever since President Medvedev said that “sometimes, sanctions are inevitable” at the UN in late September.

Subsequent statements from Moscow have revealed that President Medvedev’s statement was optimistic. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to ruin Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s recent trip to Moscow by stating, in a joint press conference with her, that sanctions were “counterproductive”. On October 22, Russia insisted that it would continue military cooperation with Iran, apparently in response to statements that it had not yet accepted payment from Tehran for advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles which it had agreed to sell back in 2007 (AFP, October 22).

The question, given these recent signs, is whether or not Russia has any intention of supporting the US and Europe in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Washington modified its planned missile-defence shield in Eastern Europe on the private condition that Moscow would be more supportive of measures against Tehran, and Secretary Clinton insists that a failure to agree to the uranium deal would, for the Kremlin, be “a call for action” (BBC News, October 14). But without any concrete public statements from Russia, it is hard to judge what the next step is.

It seems that Russia will try to continue to play the same game which it has played for years: maximising its links with Iran for geopolitical advantage, and avoiding any firm decisions one way or another, in order to squeeze benefits from the US without giving up much in return.

This is, broadly speaking, for two reasons. Russia’s commercial interests in Iran – primarily in the military and energy spheres – are considerable. The S-300 contract alone is worth some $800 million; the contract for building Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr perhaps another $1 billion. For Russia’s dysfunctional economy, which is hostage to world energy prices, trade ties with Iran are important. They help to prop up the country’s defence industry, one of its few significant non-energy sectors.

Commercial ties alone are insufficient to explain Russia’s Iran policy. Geopolitical pride is the other obvious factor, and far more important. Moscow knows that – because of those commercial ties, because of its UN Security Council seat, and because of its influence in the wider Eurasian space – it is essential to Washington’s plans. It is keen to make the world know this.

The extent to which Russia has advertised and insisted upon its own importance is obvious from the contrasting ways that the US has approached Moscow and Beijing. China is an increasingly critical partner to Iran, in both energy and military terms, and also holds a Security Council seat. But the Obama Administration has spent very little political capital on bringing China into line: the assumption seems to be that Beijing will simply ‘follow Moscow’s lead’, which suggests a serious misreading of the situation, and gives Russia more importance in China’s decision-making policy than it is due.

However, Russia cannot continue to play for time and geopolitical respect forever. Sooner or later it will have to decide whether to exercise its influence to hold Iran back, or whether to allow Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite assertions that the Kremlin understands the threat, it is not clear that it is seriously concerned by a nuclear Iran (certainly not concerned enough to prevent it).

Moscow’s strategic planners predominantly view nuclear threats in terms of warhead quantity, a product of Cold War rivalry with the US. It is less alarmed by the number of nuclear states, especially when those states – like Iran – do not possess the will or the power to ‘win’ a nuclear exchange with Russia.

In fact, it could be argued that a nuclear Iran would be in Russia’s interest. It would limit the power of US-backed states such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Israel). It would restrain Turkey, with whom Russia still has a cautious relationship. And, of course, it would seriously curtail US influence in the Middle East, pushing oil prices up drastically and helping to fill Russia’s coffers. And, by virtue of nuclear strength alone, contribute to the ‘multipolar world’ which is so favoured by the Kremlin.

Russia’s strategy – whether to continue stalling or to accept a nuclear Iran - is short-sighted. It would leave Moscow vulnerable to serious pressure in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and could spark a dangerous arms race in Russia’s southern neighbourhood. There is no guarantee that Tehran will be as rational in a decade as the Kremlin currently believes. But assuming that Russian strategic planners know this, and think along the same lines as their counterparts in Washington and Brussels, is a serious misjudgement.



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PREVIOUS ISSUES

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
  China and Central Asia, CU Issue 33, May 19, 2009
  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
       
 
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