Will Russia Help With Iran?

To judge from the mating signals coming from both sides, you'd think a major thaw in U.S.-Russia relations was imminent. Barack Obama backpedaled on his predecessor's vow to put a missile defense system near the Russian border, and Vice President Joe Biden recently called for "pushing the reset button" in dealings with Moscow, which had also been strained by America's support of NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine. For his part, in a possible sign of good will, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to suspend efforts to place Iskander short-range missiles in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

Why the sudden turnaround? The main reason is that Washington, along with the European Union, wants Russia's help on Iran. They see Russia as a vital player in preventing Tehran from getting nuclear weapons. "It is up to Russia to decide which face it wants to show," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier this month. "If it wants to be a global player, it should help us with Iran."

The Kremlin certainly knows that it's in its interest to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and recently it has made steps in that direction. Last year Russia voted for United Nations sanctions and has been putting pressure on Iran in less visible ways. A Russian state-controlled company, Atomstroiexport, has been building Iran's first civilian nuclear-power plant at Bushehr since 1995. But work has now slowed to a crawl, as have deliveries of Russian low-enriched uranium fuel. Ostensibly, the delays have been over payment disputes—but in reality, says a senior Western diplomat in Moscow who handles his country's Iran brief, the Kremlin is slowing things down intentionally to stretch out its leverage over Tehran as long as it can. Moscow has been seesawing on arms supplies to Iran, too, selling it a Tor air-defense system in 2007 but playing hard-to-get on a much more sophisticated system. Last week, Iran's defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, arrived in Moscow to try to secure an S-300 air-defense system, but he left with no deal—maybe because even Russia was spooked by Iran's demonstration last month of its latest ballistic-missile capability.

Still, Russia is unlikely to become as cooperative as Washington might hope. That's because economic interests and the Kremlin's desire to run its own foreign policy may take precedence. Plenty of Russian companies with close ties to the Kremlin, including state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, are still doing big business in Iran and would be hurt if Russia imposed deeper sanctions. More significant, continued relations with Iran—and Moscow's generally ambivalent approaches to Tehran—gives Russia a certain amount of diplomatic leverage over the rest of the world. "Moscow is hardly interested in a genuine reconciliation between Tehran and Washington," says Dmitry Trenin of Moscow's Carnegie Center. So for now, at least, Russia's rhetorical warming with the West is just that: talk.