MOSCOW — The ink on the multinational framework agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program was barely dry before Russia announced last week that it would send Tehran sophisticated air-defense missiles, withheld in deference to the West when sanctions against Iran were stiffened in 2010.
For the United States, Russia’s decision to send Iran S-300 missile systems was the latest signal yet that the growing acrimony between Moscow and Washington was not easing — even with a nuclear deal on the line.
For Israel, the deal represented a threat, as S-300 missiles could effectively neutralize a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear development facilities to prevent Tehran from developing a bomb.
But for Russia, the S-300 sale was a preemptive strike of a different kind to ensure that Russia would not lose its best opportunity to enter the Iranian market before the potential lifting of international sanctions.
“A few years back, I heard one of our diplomats say: ‘A pro-American Iran is more dangerous for us than a nuclear Iran,’ ” said Russian Middle East expert Georgy Mirsky, explaining that this philosophy, though unofficial, guides the thinking of many in the Kremlin — especially as the United States has made overtures to ease relations with Tehran.
“If you look at this as a zero-sum game, Iran getting closer to the West is a weakening of the Russian position,” Mirsky said. “And for this it is necessary to bring a preventative blow, before the implementation of this nuclear agreement, to show Iran that we are the most reliable partner and the only great power you can rely on.”
The potential Iranian nuclear deal holds billions of dollars of promise for investors eyeing the Iranian market. Even under sanctions, Iran’s economy ranks among the top 20 in the world — slightly smaller than Turkey’s, slightly bigger than Australia’s — according to data from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If there’s a deal rolling back sanctions, competition for a piece of Iran’s promising petrochemical and raw materials manufacturing industries and large consumer market would likely follow.
A resurgent Iran also carries potential costs for Russia, especially in the realm of oil and gas. Introducing Iranian oil into world markets would likely push down the global, per-barrel export price, which is key to Russia’s bottom line. And with world-leading natural gas reserves, Iran and Russia could become competitors, especially in Europe, which has long been hungry for an alternative to Russian energy.
But the past 3 1/2 decades of geopolitics have also given Moscow and Tehran a strong sense of common cause against the West that still resonates. Resisting American pressure makes Russian President Vladimir Putin look strong at home, while for Iran’s leaders, holding Western influence at arm’s length is a matter of survival for the Islamic regime. That is why Iran will never shun Russia, Mirsky said, even as it potentially welcomes Western investors in the wake of a final nuclear deal.
That’s still not enough to set Russian fears aside, though.
“The general mentality of the Russian authorities is that the West will do everything to prevent Russia from gaining any kind of advantages,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow-based analyst and head of an advisory panel to the Kremlin on foreign and defense policy. “Unofficial delegations of many European countries and companies have already been visiting Iran expecting sanctions to be lifted, and Russia is very suspicious.”
Concluding the $800 million S-300 deal — suspended for eight years since the two countries signed the contract — was an important first step to ensure that Russia isn’t shut out just as the world arrives on Tehran’s doorstep.
Moscow has made other friendly gestures toward Tehran as well: Last week, the Kremlin confirmed the existence of an oil-for-goods program that would reportedly let Russia buy up to a half-million barrels of Iranian oil per day while Russian grains and other goods would flow toward Iran. If international sanctions are lifted, experts assume other deals will follow, especially in arms sales and nuclear energy power plant development, where Russian products are competitive.
“We don’t want to be last in the list of new participants in new trade and scientific programs. We don’t want to be after the E.U., France, or after our friends from the United States,” said Andrey Klimov, a Russian parliamentarian from Putin’s “United Russia” party who is deputy chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee, though he stressed he was not speaking for the Russian government. “We’d like to be among them, or maybe a little bit ahead. That’s why we started now.”
But Russian authorities appear to have muted the impact of the delivery of the S-300s in the week since the decision to lift the ban on shipments was announced.
“The missiles that we promised to give them we didn’t give them, we just promised them,” Klimov said. “It’s not possible to deliver that kind of equipment to their territory immediately. We are not speaking about just some Kalashnikovs; you can’t just do it by pressing a button.”
Some think the missiles and oil-for-goods deals may be Russia’s way of trying to force the West to ease up on Ukraine sanctions by reminding Washington that Russia could always play the spoiler elsewhere.
Should a nuclear deal be undermined by either hard-liners in the Islamic Republic or the U.S. Congress, Russia’s promise to deliver defensive weapons may only help Moscow in a time of heightened tensions with the West. Just this week, Iran’s defense minister suggested that Russia, China, India and Iran form a group to oppose NATO.
“Russia seems willing to become the leader of rogue states, if you will,” said Russian military expert Alexander Golts. “It’s really just a new opportunity to send the same clear signal to the West: You want to isolate us, you want to ignore us? Okay, look what we can do.”