Iran, Russia: A Nuclear Marriage of Convenience
September 27, 2006 20 17  GMT


Russia and Iran have signed a contract for the delivery of 80 tons of nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr facility, which is scheduled to be completed in September 2007. Russia appears to be in the process of finishing updating its military doctrine. Closer economic ties with Iran will allow Russia to maintain a foothold in the Middle East while keeping pressure on the United States, which lacks the bandwidth to respond to Russia's provocative moves.


During a visit by an Iranian delegation to Russia, Tehran and Moscow signed agreements Sept. 26 for the delivery of 80 metric tons of nuclear fuel to supply the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran in March 2007. Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's Federal Nuclear Power Agency, recently said the plant will be commissioned in September 2007, and will commence generating power two months later.

The fuel agreements are the most significant steps toward finalizing the shape of Russian-Iranian cooperation on Bushehr. Consistent with its current strategy, Russia is simultaneously strengthening ties with Iran and expanding its presence in the Middle East, both of which irk the United States. Of course, if the September 2007 deadline becomes inconvenient in the future by conflicting with Moscow's political goals, it can be altered to suit Russia's needs, as Moscow has repeatedly done during the past decade.

The Russian stance, including its continued cooperation with Iran on Tehran's civilian nuclear program, reflects Moscow's present global position. The Kremlin is focused on strengthening its hold on domestic industry and politics, maintaining influence on Russia's periphery and indirectly challenging the United States while Washington is preoccupied with the conflict in Iraq and November's midterm congressional elections. Russia's actions in the Middle East, which present a challenge for the U.S. presence in the region, also include continued weapons systems sales to Syria, the deployment of military engineers to assist in Lebanon's reconstruction and the possible sale of surface-to-air missile systems to Iran (ostensibly to protect the Bushehr plant from Israeli or U.S. aggression).

Moscow's position has been articulated by a leaked draft of the latest update to Russia's military doctrine, published by the Russian newspaper Gazeta on Sept. 19. (The Russian Ministry of Defense denied the document's mere existence.) Along with naming the United States and NATO as enemies Nos. 1 and 2, ahead of international terrorism, the document also states that Russia would participate in conflicts on the country's periphery in order to protect its citizens. By moving from a "universal regime of nonproliferation" to a mere stance "for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and its means of delivery," Russia is leaving itself an out from being held responsible for allowing Iran the opportunity to get nuclear weapons. Though Russia has just as much incentive as the Western powers to make sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, Moscow wants to make sure it is not seen as complicit with Tehran.

Even if the documents obtained by Gazeta turn out to be legitimate, little change will come to Russian foreign and domestic policy. All of the updates suggested are in line with what Russia is already doing or can do, and military doctrines as such are not binding. This particular document, however, could bolster Russian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's position. Ivanov is widely seen as Russian President Vladimir Putin's possible successor. Ivanov has reportedly insisted on the changes in the doctrine that improve conditions in the Russian armed forces consistent with Putin's policy. This is helpful in consolidating the Kremlin's position ahead of the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections, as is continued cooperation with Iran.

Though Russia and Iran cannot be called allies, Moscow does want to give the impression that it holds some sway over Tehran. Regardless of the continued cooperation between the two, the Islamic republic is just as likely to spurn Russian advances when it suits Tehran and play Russia just as skillfully.