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In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

On October 25, an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the recently-revealed Iranian nuclear facility near Qom. The visit comes as Tehran debates a new initiative by the US, France, and Russia, which would send most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment and processing into fuel rods respectively. Thus, the international community hopes to prevent Tehran from producing highly-enriched uranium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.

One party, at least, is probably quite satisfied with the delay in Iran’s response. Russia has, despite agreeing to take part in the US-sponsored deal, so far shown no inclination to shift from its noncommittal position on Iran. Whether or not Russia is willing to ‘get tough’ on Tehran has been the subject of endless speculation ever since President Medvedev said that “sometimes, sanctions are inevitable” at the UN in late September.

Subsequent statements from Moscow have revealed that President Medvedev’s statement was optimistic. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to ruin Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s recent trip to Moscow by stating, in a joint press conference with her, that sanctions were “counterproductive”. On October 22, Russia insisted that it would continue military cooperation with Iran, apparently in response to statements that it had not yet accepted payment from Tehran for advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles which it had agreed to sell back in 2007 (AFP, October 22).

The question, given these recent signs, is whether or not Russia has any intention of supporting the US and Europe in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Washington modified its planned missile-defence shield in Eastern Europe on the private condition that Moscow would be more supportive of measures against Tehran, and Secretary Clinton insists that a failure to agree to the uranium deal would, for the Kremlin, be “a call for action” (BBC News, October 14). But without any concrete public statements from Russia, it is hard to judge what the next step is.

It seems that Russia will try to continue to play the same game which it has played for years: maximising its links with Iran for geopolitical advantage, and avoiding any firm decisions one way or another, in order to squeeze benefits from the US without giving up much in return.

This is, broadly speaking, for two reasons. Russia’s commercial interests in Iran – primarily in the military and energy spheres – are considerable. The S-300 contract alone is worth some $800 million; the contract for building Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr perhaps another $1 billion. For Russia’s dysfunctional economy, which is hostage to world energy prices, trade ties with Iran are important. They help to prop up the country’s defence industry, one of its few significant non-energy sectors.

Commercial ties alone are insufficient to explain Russia’s Iran policy. Geopolitical pride is the other obvious factor, and far more important. Moscow knows that – because of those commercial ties, because of its UN Security Council seat, and because of its influence in the wider Eurasian space – it is essential to Washington’s plans. It is keen to make the world know this.

The extent to which Russia has advertised and insisted upon its own importance is obvious from the contrasting ways that the US has approached Moscow and Beijing. China is an increasingly critical partner to Iran, in both energy and military terms, and also holds a Security Council seat. But the Obama Administration has spent very little political capital on bringing China into line: the assumption seems to be that Beijing will simply ‘follow Moscow’s lead’, which suggests a serious misreading of the situation, and gives Russia more importance in China’s decision-making policy than it is due.

However, Russia cannot continue to play for time and geopolitical respect forever. Sooner or later it will have to decide whether to exercise its influence to hold Iran back, or whether to allow Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite assertions that the Kremlin understands the threat, it is not clear that it is seriously concerned by a nuclear Iran (certainly not concerned enough to prevent it).

Moscow’s strategic planners predominantly view nuclear threats in terms of warhead quantity, a product of Cold War rivalry with the US. It is less alarmed by the number of nuclear states, especially when those states – like Iran – do not possess the will or the power to ‘win’ a nuclear exchange with Russia.

In fact, it could be argued that a nuclear Iran would be in Russia’s interest. It would limit the power of US-backed states such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Israel). It would restrain Turkey, with whom Russia still has a cautious relationship. And, of course, it would seriously curtail US influence in the Middle East, pushing oil prices up drastically and helping to fill Russia’s coffers. And, by virtue of nuclear strength alone, contribute to the ‘multipolar world’ which is so favoured by the Kremlin.

Russia’s strategy – whether to continue stalling or to accept a nuclear Iran - is short-sighted. It would leave Moscow vulnerable to serious pressure in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and could spark a dangerous arms race in Russia’s southern neighbourhood. There is no guarantee that Tehran will be as rational in a decade as the Kremlin currently believes. But assuming that Russian strategic planners know this, and think along the same lines as their counterparts in Washington and Brussels, is a serious misjudgement.

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