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.

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.