Although United States President Barack Obama never clearly announced that the Russian government may have the key to Iran’s nuclear problem, it is probable that the Kremlin’s significant role in the Middle East is a major concern for both Obama and the European countries. On one hand, Russia calls for full co-operation with the West in terms of creating a stable situation in the region; on the other hand, Iran’s nuclear ambitions seem to receive great support from Russia. To understand this relationship, one should consider Iran’s international strategic shift towards Russia and China as well as the potential threat of Iran’s nuclear program, not just to the Middle East but to the whole world.
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979 the Islamic state maintained its distance from Western countries, and specifically the United States, to show that this new regime’s foreign policy was vastly different from the policy of the previous monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. In the Islamic government’s opinion, America had been a keen ally and supporter of the Shah against the Iranian people. The best example here is the CIA coup in 1953 against the Iranian nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, which reinstated the unpopular Shah to his palace in Tehran.
From when the hostages were taken at the US embassy in Tehran, shortly after establishing the Islamic state, to when George W. Bush’s labeled Iran as one part of the “axis of evil”, moderate politicians had little hope for the re-establishment of Iran-US diplomatic relations. In the shadow of the US official absence in Iran after the revolution, the Islamic regime changed its international policy towards the East. Although as a theocratic state the regime seemed to have difficulties in justifying its ever-growing relationship with the communist governments of the USSR and China, the Islamic government still showed its interest in developing close relations with these governments. Ironically, the Shah was appreciated by most clerics of his era for keeping his distance with those same communist states.
Although Iran voluntarily accepted the suspension of its uranium enrichment program in 2003, the invasion of Iraq and the sending of more troops to Afghanistan by US and its allies convinced the Iranian government to re-evaluate its nuclear program. A central belief of the Iranian government is that, in the long term, the US plans to overthrow the Islamic state. This belief gives Iran grounds for embedding a closer relationship with Russia.
Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, three UN sanctions have been imposed on Iran as a result of his government’s insistence in continuing its uranium enrichment plans. The regime keeps declaring that Iran has made its decision to not step back from its enrichment plans. Despite the fact that Russia and China are members of the UN Security Council and have even condemned Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has never considered them as enemies. It is thought that China and Russia attempt to lessen the anti-Iran convictions within the UNSC and encourage a more moderate treatment of Iran by UNSC.
Vladimir Putin’s half-day visit to Iran on October 17, 2007, has been mentioned by Iran’s regime as a significant achievement for its foreign policy. The Supreme Leader of Iran, regardless of the many historical facts, announced at the time that Iranian’s have always had a positive memory of Russian governments. Shortly after Putin’s visit, Iran’s claim to a percentage of the Caspian Sea went silent. Furthermore, Russia’s suspension of its contract to finish the Boushehr reactor and the airplane factory by 2006 seems to no longer be a problem for the Iranian government.
Russia’s welcoming of Ahmadinejad in Moscow after Iran’s controversial election, as well as Russia’s consideration of Iran’s behaviour towards its citizens during the last few weeks as being a completely internal issue, has prompted many Iranians to consider Russia as the first “foreign advisor” for the Islamic state. There are many experts and even ordinary Iranians who believe that rather than what the late Ayatollah Khomeini termed an “American’s interpretation of the Islamic state”, they are now faced with a “Russian interpretation of the Islamic state”.
Even though there are many economic and military reasons for the close relationship between these two governments, the most important one seems to be Russia’s role in “supporting” Iran’s nuclear program. As Obama mentioned, Russia occupies a significant position as a friend to Iran among UNSC members. Some experts suggest that the world is going to face the emergence of a new power bloc which may challenge Western interests. Russia, China and India are the potential components of this new emerging bloc. Iran’s nuclear ambition gives this bloc, especially Russia, an advantageous position as it allows Russia to play a two-sided role against both Western countries and Iran. This scenario, naturally, provides Russia with benefits from both sides.
As a close friend to Iran and a UNSC member with great influence the Middle East region, many Iranian journalists argue that the Russian government is more interested in dealing with a fundamental (anti-West) Iranian regime than a (pro-West) reformist one. This is why many Iranian intellectuals suggest that this is the second time in Iran’s contemporary history that a coup has occurred. Many of them believe Iran is faced with a kind of Russian coup against the Iranian outcome of the presidential election.
As long as Iran is an isolated country in terms of its international relationships, Russia is capable of playing the abovementioned two-sided role. As well, the Iranian state believes that its strategic shift towards Russia and China may pave the road for continuing its nuclear ambition. The other connotation of this situation could be read in the following way: whenever the Russian government faces difficulties with the US, Iran’s nuclear program may advance one step further.
Although Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not necessarily mean that the Islamic state is trying to achieve nuclear weapons, as Obama noted in his last interview with Associated Press before going to Russia, Iran may influence other countries in the region, encouraging them to get nuclear weapons for their own security. For the time being, this is likely to be a major theme of Obama’s discussions with Moscow. However, as Obama himself admitted in the same interview, “it's gotten more difficult in light of what's happened post-election in Iran”.