On Monday I gave a talk on Russian, Chinese, and Venezuelan energy policies to a group of State Department officers and some other government folks from places like ONI. All of the people involved have energy as some part of their portfolio, and were on a trip to Houston to learn about a variety of energy issues.
At the Q&A after my talk, one person asked me: “At the Iran desk we are confused about Russia’s policy towards Iran. It would seem that they have an interest in keeping Iranian energy, especially gas, out of the market, so would have an interest in robust sanctions. How do you explain their lukewarm support and their dealings with Iran?” After recovering from the “you’re asking me?” shock, I responded that it doesn’t confuse me at all. The Russians want their cake and to eat it to. They are playing a double game. They benefit from turmoil in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf. It is quite useful to them to have the US distracted by Iran, leaving Russia more space in the Near Abroad. Russia has strong economic interests–in nuclear power, and arms, in particular. They don’t want to see Iranian gas to to Europe, but have no problems with it going south and east. At the same time, they are trying to reach some kind of accommodation with the US, and aren’t thrilled about an Iran with nuclear weapons.
So Russia wants a Goldilocks approach–not too tough, but not too lax. It wants to keep Iran on a low boil, not too hot and not too cold.
Hence the to-ing and fro-ing, the double dealings, and so on. Alleviating pressure from their western flank by agreeing to weak sanctions–that give Russia the flexibility to engage in business dealings with Iran, including the sale of advanced S-300 antiaircraft missile systems. When Ahmadinejad throws a hissy over Russian support for sanctions–no matter how tepid–they try to assuage him. They criticized the EU’s more robust sanctions. Russia and Iran signed an energy cooperation “roadmap.” And of particular interest, given that the Iranian regimes greatest vulnerability to sanctions is in motor fuels (given its inadequate refining capacity), Thursday it was announced that Russian companies including Rosneft, Gazprom Neft, and Tatneft would start “serious deliveries” of gasoline to Iran.
In short, Russia is playing both sides against the middle, extracting concessions from the US and the EU, including special treatment, to agree to sanctions, and then turning around and dealing with the Iranians. The resulting state of not war-not peace suits them just fine. It seems pretty obvious, and it would be rather unsettling if the State Department really finds this befuddling. Russia is pursuing its own interests, and those interests are not congruent with ours. That the Russians are doing so by talking out of both sides of their mouths should be expected. Indeed, I would be more worried if they didn’t.