China’s unwillingness to support sanctions against Iran may preoccupy the international community, but the discussion ignores a key development: the lack of a Russian obstacle.
To put the situation in perspective, Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, estimated to be in the region of 16,000 (although the Start II Treaty limits the number of operational warheads to 4250). It also has a traditional hostility towards America’s aggressive foreign policy and a vested interest in keeping US/Iranian relations frosty in order to knock out a major competitor in oil production.
Along with China, it has forced a watering down of three previous attempts at sanctions against Ahmadinejad’s regime. Their combined resistance to tough international measures has left many feeling that, to date, sanctions have been largely toothless.
In fact, its reasons for not remaining a silent onlooker in the current dispute are somewhat unclear from a historical perspective.
Nevertheless the Kremlin has decided to take a strong stance against Iran’s enrichment programme and, indeed, welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, into its hallowed halls this week for talks.
Mr Netanyahu has already publicly praised President Medvedev for “understanding” the significance to regional security of preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. His optimism, while not wholly shared by numerous members of the Russian press, is testament to the shifting position of the Russian Federation from agitator to mediator.
Of primary importance appears to be a growing sense of frustration with Admadinejad and his regime as they repeatedly ignore Russian overtures towards helping the country achieve its stated aim of civilian nuclear power. Moscow has tabled an offer to enrich uranium for an Iranian reactor under international supervision as a way of appeasing international concerns but Tehran has so far failed to accept the terms of such a plan.
Russia, however, in unlikely to be overly moved by Israeli pressure. While I’m sure it is churlish to point out the irony of the head of a state which is still yet to admit to the existence of its own nuclear arsenal lecturing one of its neighbours about the threat such weapons pose to regional security, it is one that will not be lost on Moscow.
So the west must be cautious in their drive to punish Iran for its latest round of sabre-rattling. Support from Russia is contingent on a push for further negotiation with Iran and international acceptance of Tehran’s right to nuclear power for civilian use. If the US tries to force a harder line they may find Russian backing evaporates as quickly as it arrived, and without them the success of further sanctions would be called into question. With Iran already knocking at the door of the nuclear club, the international community can ill afford the loss of such an important partner.