High Stakes for Moscow in U.S. Play for Iran
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
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E-mail: [email protected]
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The situation in Iran will likely become the center of global
tensions in the months and years ahead. Tehran’s desire to
establish its status as a regional power will surely clash with
Washington’s desire to solidify its own global leadership role. And
Russia, which has one foot in both camps, will find itself in an
increasingly difficult position.

President Barack Obama remains committed to the policy on Iran
that he articulated during his election campaign. In short,
Washington has a clear interest in normalizing relations with

Tehran was the only party to come out an unequivocal winner
following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After Iran’s chief nemesis,
President Saddam Hussein, was executed, Tehran began to spread its
influence throughout a large part of Iraq. If the U.S. forces
really do withdraw from Iraq, Iran will play a central role in how
events develop further there.

Tehran is an enemy of al-Qaida, and with regard to Pakistan — a
key player in the Afghanistan conflict — it is envious of its
membership in the nuclear club. Iran has no interest in seeing the
Taliban victorious in Afghanistan either, and it considers the
Taliban — Sunni radicals who have ties to Saudi Arabia — to be
its main rival in the Islamic world.

What’s more, by improving relations with Iran, the United States
can achieve its goal of diversifying energy supplies to Europe,
which means reducing European dependence on Russian gas and oil.
And only Iranian natural gas supplies can make the proposed Nabucco
gas pipeline project viable.

The economic and political fallout for Moscow would be enormous
if Tehran and Washington even partially normalize relations.
Improved relations between the two would give Europe access to
Iranian natural gas, meaning that Russia would have to battle with
a new, powerful competitor to maintain its share of the European
energy market. Furthermore, normal U.S.-Iranian relations would
open Iran’s domestic market to Western technologies, including in
the civilian nuclear power sector, thereby potentially leaving
Russia on the sidelines in these lucrative markets.

From a rational point of view, it would be to Washington’s
advantage to improve relations with Iran the way former U.S.
President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did
with China in the 1970s. If Washington can get past its deep
aversion to Tehran’s theocratic and anti-Semitic regime, we will
witness a revolution in global geopolitics. This is all the more a
challenge considering that Washington’s relations with the current
Iranian regime began with a severe conflict 30 years ago when
revolutionaries held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. No
superpower can easily overlook this brazen act, even 30 years

The upcoming presidential election in Iran is unlikely to change
the situation drastically. The West hopes that Iran’s economic
problems will undermine the voter base of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad. Although the departure of a man who has become a
symbol of anti-Semitism and aggression would undoubtedly improve
the general atmosphere, it is unlikely to result in fundamental
changes in Tehran’s policies toward the West.

In any case, there is little chance that the United States will
be able to establish a positive dialogue with Iran. Tehran believes
that its right to develop a nuclear program is not negotiable, and
Washington remains inflexibly opposed to it.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider the improbable scenario
in which Moscow, in an effort to stop Iran from developing nuclear
weapons and destabilizing the region, sides with Washington by
supporting sanctions against Tehran. Few people seriously believe
that international sanctions are capable of preventing Iran from
developing its nuclear program. Past experience shows that
sanctions are ineffective in such situations.

What would happen next? Would the world have to come to terms
with a nuclear-armed Tehran? Washington previously closed a blind
eye to India and Pakistan when they «illegally» developed nuclear
weapons, and the United States might be able to tolerate one more
addition to the nuclear club, in theory, if the country were
moderate. But there is a clear difference between letting New Delhi
or Islamabad join the club and giving membership rights to the
militant anti-U.S. regime in Tehran.

This says nothing of the fact that it would be a serious
political defeat for Washington if Iran were to test a nuclear
weapon. After all, the administrations of three consecutive U.S.
presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama) have declared
that a nuclear-armed Iran is absolutely inadmissible because of the
global threat it would represent. What’s more, it would have a
domino effect, leading other Middle Eastern states to obtain
nuclear arms, thereby destroying any attempt to enforce nuclear

Another option for Obama is to use force to resolve the Iranian
question. If the U.S. military is successful in forcing a regime
change in Tehran, it will solidify the global status of the United
States as the only state capable of resolving the world’s problems.
In general, U.S. presidents don’t sit by and watch impassively
during major global events. And if Washington’s attempt to
establish a rapport with Tehran ends unsuccessfully, it will serve
as one more example of how it is pointless to try talking with
Iran’s leaders.

Iran is a problem for Russia regardless of which direction
Tehran goes. A nuclear-armed Iran would greatly destabilize the
region. It is difficult to predict the extent and aim of Iran’s
ambitions. Any attempt by the United States to apply force against
Iran would mean that the military conflict would be brought to
Russia’s southern border. Moreover, if Washington achieves its
objectives in Iran, it would shift the strategic balance of power
in favor of the United States and away from Moscow. But a failure
by the United States to achieve its goals in Iran could undermine
the existing balance of power.

No matter how subsequent events develop, Moscow will play no
more than a supporting role at best. One big risk for Russia is
coming out the loser if it supports the wrong side in the

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