In the middle of a round of negotiations with the United States, Moscow is attempting to bring back a lever it once used against Washington - Iran. The Kremlin has met with the Iranians for three days this week. On Monday, Russian Security Council chief (and former head of the Russian Federal Security Service) Nikolai Patrushev met with his counterpart, Saeed Jalili, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and other high-ranking officials in Moscow. Meanwhile, an Iranian military delegation is attending Russia's largest military and air show, the International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) 2011, this week at the Zhukovsky air base near Moscow. The Iranians have, like most attendees, come with a expansive list of military bids.
The flurry of Russo-Iranian meetings comes after weeks of intense security negotiations between Moscow and Washington - a prelude to a series of summits this fall and winter. The U.S.-Russian talks concern the future of security arrangements in the Eurasian sphere. Moscow is worried about U.S. actions to secure its influence in Central Europe via American lily-pad bases in Romania and Bulgaria, U.S.-led ballistic missile defense in Romania and Poland and Washington's backing of new military alliances among Central European states. Russia is attempting to counter the consolidation of all these moves, which, if completed, would create an anti-Moscow corridor running from the Baltic to the Black Seas. In the Kremlin's eyes, the United States is using these maneuvers to shift the former Cold War containment line in Europe several hundred kilometers closer to Moscow.
Russia is working on a large series of preemptive measures and countermoves in order to either prevent the consolidation of Washington's plans or to be ready to react once they do. First, Russia has been pushing forward its military reach. It has plans to quickly station missile systems and troops in Kaliningrad and Belarus. Russia is also building up its Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine and is in the process of trying to implement a security alliance with Germany - and possibly with France and Italy at a later date. In the recent negotiations, Moscow has pushed for the United States to integrate its proposed ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations with the current Russian system. Moscow argues that an integrated BMD system would give the United States and its allies an extended and robust structure that would stretch across Europe and the former Soviet states, all the way into Asia. Such a system would be able to counter threats from Iran and North Korea, among others.
In these latest negotiations with the United States, Russia has also pushed its assertion that Iran presents a much bigger threat to NATO allies than Washington previously knew. Moscow says that for the United States and its allies to be secure, the NATO-U.S. system needs to integrate its defense structures with Russia's. However, such an assertion assumes that Moscow is still uniquely qualified to know what is actually happening inside Iran - something that isn't as clear now as it was in the past.
In previous years, when negotiations between Washington and Moscow (typically involving the same disputes) became more aggressive, Moscow would immediately bring up the Iran issue. The Kremlin backed Iran's right to build a civilian nuclear facility and even became the country's partner in the project. Russia also threatened to sell its S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran - a system greatly coveted by many nations that oppose the United States. In short, Moscow was Tehran's power patron. The two countries don't necessarily share a history of mutual trust, but both saw an opportunity for a temporary alliance that suited each one's needs.
However, in 2010, Russia turned against Iran and voted to support some of the harshest U.N. Security Council sanctions ever enacted against the Islamic Republic. At the time, Moscow was negotiating with the United States over American involvement in Russian investments as well as whether the United States would resume sending military supplies to Georgia. Russia did not hesitate to temporarily set aside Iran as a bargaining chip.
Nevertheless, it looks as if Russia and Iran are both entertaining the idea of reconnecting - at least for now. This time around, Russia is telling Tehran that the United States and Israel could once again be planning an attack on Iran. Moscow has said it could negotiate with Washington to prevent such an attack. Russia also claims it could bring Iran to the negotiation table with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.
So Moscow is playing a multifaceted game. It relays to the United States how big a threat Iran is, while telling Iran a similar story about the United States and Israel - then Moscow tells them both how Russia can resolve it all. With Moscow navigating between alliances and shifting its stories for each player, the question remains whether anyone believes what Russia is saying (regardless of how much of it is true). Russia does have a knack for including elements of truth in all its stories. So while both Tehran and Washington may not trust Russia, can they afford to not consider the threats the Kremlin is portraying?