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Russia and Iran Sanctions

21 October 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

In just a few years’ time, Iran’s tally of uranium enrichment centrifuges has grown 35 times from 164 to 6,000. Along the way, the intransigence of Iran’s president–which drew international condemnation, caused western companies to pull out of ventures in Iran, and led the International Atomic Energy Agency to send Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council–has fueled an unprecedented amount of internal instability within the Islamic Republic.

Russia has appeared wary of sanctions, but Medvedev’s remarks at the G-20 summit suggest the distinct possibility of a Russian move towards the U.S. position. While Russia is busy clamping down at home–and learning from the Chinese Communist Party how to run a one-party state–there are a number of reasons, on the international front, that its positions are moving closer to those of the western powers.

For one thing, Russia is not afraid of higher oil prices. Perhaps I haven’t followed the reporting on this closely enough, but this seems to be a critical point that is largely ignored. While China fears an economic blow from higher oil prices, Russia has everything to gain and little to lose. It is true that there are Russian companies that could be affected substantially depending on the way the sanctions are designed, but many Russian companies–and the Russian government itself–stand to gain.

Then there are internal factors within the Russian political establishment. While many Putin appointees, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, are crisscrossing the globe strongly condemning the sanctions approach, Medvedev himself has struck a different tune of late. Some Kremlin insiders (of the liberal variety) hope to see an election openly contested by Medvedev and Putin in 2012. Medvedev is, therefore, trying to achieve independence from Putin–if only to keep all his options open. President Obama helped in his remarks before visiting Russia in July, when he spoke highly of Medvedev and suggested Medvedev was a leader from Russia’s new, younger, and more modern generation, in contrast to Putin. At the G-20, Medvedev returned the complement and compared himself to Obama: “we are of the same generation, we had the same kind of education.”

If Medvedev is able to bring substantially better relations with the west, and to push through a sanctions resolution in spite of opposition from Putin surrogates, that could represent one of Medvedev’s efforts to find his own political voice. His “Go Russia” plan for a more diversified economic future is a similar step, though aimed at the larger Russian public.

Russia appreciates Obama’s approach to the country so far, particularly the U.S. decision to cancel its anti-ballistic missile defense program in Europe. Medvedev may also sign on to a sanctions resolution in part to encourage the United States to continue in its conciliatory approach to Russia.

Finally, Russian and Chinese reluctance on sanctions is hardly absolute: the UN Security Council has already been able to pass resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, and 1803 on Iran’s nuclear program since 2006. These resolutions have levied sanctions, prohibited certain kinds of international trade with Iran, and demanded a halt to Iran’s enrichment program.

Russia’s positions in this area matter since they will influence China’s decisions, thus paving the way for a Security Council resolution, if needed. But–most importantly–they can create an environment in which Iran’s Ahmadinejad will feel compelled to change course. Let’s hope that’s what happens.

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One Comment »

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    With the recent Iranian agreement to send 75% of uranium to Russia for processing, one wonders if this will take the wind out of the Russian sanction "sails". Of course, this was precisely what Tehran intends to cause — division among the UNSC members. On the other hand, perhaps the agreement is precisely what we would want to see in a "best-case scenario": Iran moving toward cooperation in its nuke program.