Iran and the Resetting of US-Russia Relations—Update
February 4, 2011
Although Moscow continues to send mixed signals about tough sanctions against Iran, the Obama administration’s nonproliferation strategy appears to be on track, thanks largely to Russian cooperation.
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In my analysis “Iran and the Resetting of US-Russia Relations” posted on May 24, I argued that with Moscow’s decision to support the US-sponsored Security Council resolution on new sanctions against Iran, the administration of Barack Obama had essentially achieved its goal of repairing US-Russia relations after the sudden chill brought on by the August 2008 conflict in Georgia. I noted three developments in particular that had smoothed the way for Russia’s change of heart on the Iran sanctions: the Obama administration’s wholesale revision of deployment plans for an advanced US missile defense system in Europe, the election of a pro-Russian president in Ukraine without outside intervention, and resubmission of the US-Russia civil nuclear agreement (withdrawn by the previous administration) to the US Congress just before the new sanctions resolution was put before the Security Council.
However, as I noted in a follow-up posted on May 24 ( “Getting Iran Back to the Table“ ), the sanctions to which Moscow agreed were strong enough to “bite” but not “strangle” Iran (to borrow Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s metaphor). Moreover, even while speaking in favor of the resolution, Moscow officials seemed to place themselves in opposition to Washington by giving high marks to the fuel-swap agreement Iran reached with Brazil and Turkey the day before the United States submitted the sanctions resolution. In a last-minute deal dismissed by Washington and Tel Aviv as a stalling tactic, Iran agreed to ship low-enriched (3.5% enriched) uranium to Turkey in exchange for supplies of nuclear fuel (20% enriched) from France, Russia, and the United States to power its medical research reactor.
To explain this apparent disconnect, I cited a remark by Vladimir Orlov of the PIR Center (Russian Center for Policy Studies) asserting that “there are adequate grounds for concluding that the agreement Turkey and Brazil concluded with Iran had the prior approval of Russia and the United States,” a statement which I interpreted as follows:
- Russia and China agreed to cooperate with the Obama administration in submitting a resolution for new sanctions against Iran to the UN Security Council.
- In substance, however, the sanctions are a far cry from the tough measures sought by Israel and certain members of Congress, such as a gasoline embargo; moreover, the Obama administration is fully aware that they will not lead to a fundamental solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
- In submitting the latest resolution to the UN Security Council with the support of Russia and China, the Obama administration—which was initially reluctant to impose additional sanctions—hopes to give the appearance of “getting tough” with Iran while in fact using the uranium fuel swap mediated by Brazil and Turkey as a means of gradually bringing Iran back to the P-5+1 (permanent Security Council members plus Germany) table, where the parties can negotiate more fundamental measures, including the suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
- Russia fully understands the Obama administration’s underlying intent and is cooperating to that end.
My analysis of the situation at the time has not changed fundamentally. But what about subsequent developments?
Blindsided by Moscow?
On June 9 the UN Security Council passed the US-sponsored resolution imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran, with 12 votes in favor, 2 against, and one abstention. Brazil and Turkey, who had brokered the abovementioned fuel-swap agreement as a possible solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear development program, cast the opposing votes, and Lebanon, one of Iran’s closest allies in the Middle East, abstained. But the crucial votes were those of permanent Security Council members China and Russia, both of whom have veto power.
On July 1, President Obama—under intense pressure from the many anti-Iran hardliners in Congress—signed into law a package of unilateral American sanctions that went beyond the Security Council resolution with such measures as an embargo on exports of refined petroleum to Iran and further restrictions on investment in the country’s energy sector.  President Medvedev immediately criticized the imposition of unilateral sanctions going beyond those adopted by the Security Council, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned the US Department of State against trying to punish Russian companies under the law. 
Furthermore, Russian Minister of Energy Sergey Shmatko, meeting with Iranian Energy Minister Massoud Mir-Kazemi in Moscow on July 14, announced that the two countries had agreed to establish a working group to step up bilateral cooperation on oil and gas development. 
Viewed superficially, these developments might convey the impression that the Obama’s administration’s bid to “reset” US-Russia relation—an effort aimed primarily at securing close Russian cooperation on the problem of Iranian nuclear proliferation—was already losing its effect. I have a different take on the situation, however.
More than Meets the Eye
First, it is significant that, while the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 signed by President Obama calls for sanctions on countries exporting refined petroleum to Iran or investing in production of refined petroleum in that country, it also gives the president the right to waive application of those sanctions to companies in countries that “cooperate in multilateral efforts with respect to Iran” (Title 1, Section 102[g]).  It seems safe to assume that this special provision was included with Russia and China in mind.
Second, it should be pointed out that the agreement between Russia and Iran to establish a working group for closer cooperation on petroleum and natural gas is no more than a general accord between governments; it makes no mention of any concrete agreement between business entities.
In fact, particularly in view of Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s July 15 remark that P-5+1 talks should begin around late September,  a more plausible interpretation is that Moscow and other governments are currently bargaining with Tehran behind the scenes in an effort to bring Iran back to the P-5+1 (permanent SC members plus German) negotiating table with the fuel-swap deal as the basis for an eventual settlement. (Translated from a report in Japanese published on July 22, 2010)
 “Obama Signs Into Law Tighter Sanctions on Iran,” New York Times , July 1, 2010.
 “Russia Plan to help Iran Challenges Sanctions,” New York Times , July 14, 2010.
 Ibid. [Might it be better to cite the actual law? (see comment)]
 Bloomberg News, “Iran Says Nuclear-Fuel Talks Should Open in September,” Washington Post , July 15, 2010.