Dispatch: Iran and Russia Miss Another Bushehr Deadline

4 MINS READAug 30, 2011 | 18:49 GMT
As another deadline for the completion of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant passes, analyst Reva Bhalla examines the complexities in the Iran-Russia relationship.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Yet another deadline has passed this week for the completion of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which is staffed with Russian nuclear scientists. The Iranians continue to claim that everything is according to schedule and testing is proceeding. However, it's much more likely that Russia will continue to string Iran along in this project, along with many others. Over the past several days, Iran has been extremely vocal in expressing its displeasure against Russia. First, Iran announced that it was filing a lawsuit against Russia after the latter backed out of a deal to deliver the S-300 strategic air defense system to Iran. Then, Iran announced that it was kicking Russian energy firm Gazprom out of a major energy deal to develop the Azar oil field project near the Iraqi border. So why all the bad air between Iran and Russia? The first thing to understand about the Russian-Iranian relationship is that there's very little love lost between these two allies. Iran doesn't have many allies on its friends list to begin with, and it has to rely primarily on Russia for foreign backing. When it comes to political backing and the U.N. Security Council, help with sanctions must be military assistance, among other things. Russia, on the other hand, views Iran primarily as a bargaining chip with which to prod the United States. Russia is pursuing a broader agenda that's focused on the main idea of consolidating Russian influence in the former Soviet periphery, amping up the Iran threat every now and then is a great way for Russia to add to Washington's problems while capturing Washington's attention on the issues that the Kremlin cares about, whether that entails lessening the U.S. military footprint in central Europe or bargaining for much-needed Western investment in Russia. The problem that Russia is facing is that a lot of the usual cards it uses in trying to deal with Iran are actually losing their punch. Russia is preparing for a growing confrontation with the United States in the coming months as it seeks to further a new security arrangement in Europe that would be friendly to Russian interests. Russia would like to rebuild its Iran leverage in preparation for these negotiations. Russia isn't necessarily ready to overly provoke the West through something like the sale of the S-300s to Iran, but it has been ramping up or at least trying to ramp up nuclear negotiations with Iran, while dropping hints to Western intelligence that the Iranian nuclear program may be further along than they thought, all in a way to try to position Russia as a mediator in this wider dispute. But the Iranians are understandably very distrustful of the Russians. The delays in the Bushehr nuclear power plant and the S-300 sales have become major embarrassments for the Iranians. Typically, Iran wouldn't make such a public show of its displeasure with Russia, but right now it can afford to. The reason is because Iran is in a relatively strong position. The United States has its hands quite full in trying to manage domestic pressure over the economy and trying to bring closure to the war in Afghanistan and in trying to develop a coherent policy for the Arab world that is in great unease. Meanwhile, Iran is in a very favorable position in Iraq, where the United States is struggling to maintain an effective blocking force against the Iranians. If Russia wants to regain its leverage with Iran to use in its dealings with the West, it may have to devise some new angles to entice Tehran while maintaining some plausible deniability with the West. This is why we are keeping an especially close eye on potential third party suppliers — countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan and Venezuela — who could potentially facilitate deals between Russia and Iran while keeping the more controversial deals under the radar.
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