Moscow and the Middle East

Iran’s influence in the Middle East is being strengthened not only because of the opportunities created by the frustration of US power in Iraq, but because of the diplomatic protection it has been receiving from China, and most importantly, from Russia. With President Putin recently completing a Middle East tour to flex Russia’s diplomatic muscles and sell arms, now is a good moment to assess his country’s influence in the region.

Russia, by wielding the threat of its Security Council veto, spent much of the past two years whittling away the proposed list of sanctions that might be slapped on Iran for its refusal to honor its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency over its nuclear program. As a result, the sanctions that have been imposed by the UN Security Council are so tepid that they are unlikely to be effective.

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Russia sees its relations with Iran as a means to leverage its influence in wider Middle East diplomacy, where the US has successfully sought to exclude the Kremlin from influence since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s other selfish aim has been to exempt from sanctions the Bushehr nuclear-reactor project it is building for Iran, and to ward off a UN-sponsored financial squeeze on Iran that might put at risk the profits Russia hopes to earn from providing nuclear fuel for the reactor, which is due to be commissioned late this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that Iran, unlike North Korea, has not expelled IAEA nuclear inspectors, quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or tested a weapon — so it should be dealt with gently. But without making Iran weigh real costs against its nuclear plans, Iran will have little reason to consider the suspension of uranium enrichment and plutonium dabbling (both are usable for nuclear fuel-making but abusable for bomb-making) that the Europeans and the United States have made a condition for serious negotiations to take place.

Russia trades heavily with Iran, which is another reason it is wary of sanctions on that country. But America has been leaning on foreign banks to curb their dealings with Iran. Last month, it added five companies (four in China, and another in the US but representing a Chinese outfit) to its list of those fingered for assisting Iran's weapons program and thus banned from doing business with American companies. There is a growing fear in Moscow that the US administration is now looking at Russian companies with similar ties to Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Russian policy, based on immediate monetary gain and a hope of diplomatic influence, is dangerously short-sighted. (Ukraine, for its part, opted not to participate in building the Bushehr reactor.) If suspicions are correct that Iran has been secretly learning how to build and trigger a nuclear device, and also to shape a missile cone to carry such a warhead (as well as publicly developing nuclear-capable, far-flying missiles), then once it has fully mastered uranium enrichment it will soon be poised to break out at short notice, at a moment of its choosing, from the NPT’s limits. By enfeebling diplomacy, Russia is taking the world into more dangerous territory.

This is doubly short-sighted as a nuclear armed Iran on Russia’s border is not in Russia’s national interest, particularly with Russia’s own 20 million Muslim citizens becoming increasingly radicalized. Indeed, Russia’s Muslim population is the only part of the Russian population that is growing, which means that Muslims will become a bigger and bigger factor in Russian domestic politics in the decades ahead. That Iran is often seen as a principle backer of the Chechen separatists is also testimony to the truly short-sighted nature of Russian policy.

But in its quest to enhance its great power prestige today, Russia seems willing to sacrifice its long term security interests in the region for immediate diplomatic gratification. And it is doing so not only in respect to Iran. The big question about Turkmenistan today is whether the vacuum left by Niyazov/Turkmanbashi’s death will allow Islamic extremism to spill over from neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan. But the only thing that Russia appears to be concerned about is that, whatever successor regime emerges, it is willing to do the Kremlin’s bidding.

Russia has long had the upper hand in Turkmenistan. Most of Turkmenistan's gas is exported through the Russian pipeline system. Gazprom, the Russian state giant, buys gas at relatively low prices, and then distributes it in Russia or sells it at a profit elsewhere in Europe.

Israel, like Turkey and the US, must be hoping that Turkmenistan’s new rulers will seek to diversify gas distribution by adopting a project to build a gas pipeline beneath the Caspian Sea. But diversification is also needed in that country’s politics, because the only opposition that has any strength in the country is worryingly Islamic fundamentalist.

Russia has had centuries of influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, much of which used to be incorporated in the Russian and Soviet empires. It could serve as a powerful force for good in the region, if it stops seeking short term advantage and begins to act in its own long term interests, which will best be served by a prosperous, non-nuclear armed Iran, and a far more open Turkmenistan.