Andy GrottoRussia's Subtle Shift on Iran

Iran’s ballistic missile tests last week have sparked unusually harsh criticism from Russia. According to the BBC, Russian officials have said the tests

raised suspicion over the true aim of [Iran’s] nuclear programme.

This is remarkable coming from Moscow, and the latest sign of a potentially significant shift in Russia’s stance on Iran. Through 2007, Russia was the main obstacle in UNSC efforts to tighten the thumb screws on Iran, preferring bilateral diplomacy with Tehran over the international sanctions route.

This January, however, Russia finally agreed to a third sanctions resolution. Moscow also opposes the efforts of South Africa to delay the resolution. South Africa, which holds a non-permanent UNSC seat and is an influential member of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries, wants to wait until IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei finishes his meddlesome freelance diplomacy with Iran before proceeding—presumably in the hopes that ElBaradei gives Iran a clean bill of health, which could undermine the prospects for a unanimous or near-unanimous UNSC vote. The Russians, however, want the resolution to move forward sooner rather than later.

The Russians are now criticizing Iran’s enrichment and ballistic missile programs in the same breath. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that

We don’t approve of Iran’s permanent demonstration of its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue to enrich uranium.

In the span of just a few months, Russia has gone from denying an Iranian nuclear weapons program and foot-dragging on sanctions to drawing explicit linkages between Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and pushing a third sanctions resolution.

So what changed Russia’s tack?

There are a number of possibilities, none mutually exclusive. Perhaps something in the intelligence the United States recently shared with the IAEA (and presumably some UNSC countries) on key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program spooked the Russians. Or maybe Moscow, like many Western governments, is ticked off at ElBaradei for playing shadow UN Secretary-General and wants the UNSC to reassert its authority. News of Iran’s apparent progress on P-2/IR-2 centrifuges may worry them as well.

I suspect that the main driver, however, is the remarkable shift in U.S. politics in the aftermath of the November 2007 Iran NIE. The NIE’s headline finding that Iran abandoned nuclear warhead and weaponization R&D in the fall of 2003 has eliminated the possibility of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities for the foreseeable future. This frees up Russia and other countries to toe a harder line against Iran without worrying about legitimating U.S. military action.

If this interpretation is true, it means that the litany of pundits and commentators complaining that the NIE plays right into Iran’s hands have it exactly backwards: by effectively taking U.S. military action off the table for now, the NIE makes it easier, not harder, for countries like Russia to send Iran a stronger signal about its enrichment program. After all, Russia (and China, for that matter) do not want Iran to develop the capability to deploy nuclear weapons; until the Iran NIE, however, this concern was counterbalanced by a worry that the United States might launch another war in the Middle East.

(Joe Cirincione and I made an argument along these lines in our Contain and Engage strategy released last March. See page 45.)

Russia’s shift is good news, but sticks alone won’t compel Iran to capitulate. The Bush administration needs to get serious about offering Iran credible inducements, which it has proven chronically unable—or unwilling—to do.


  1. hass (History)

    I think you’re reading too much into this. The Russians disagreed with Iran’s DEMONSTRATION of intentions to continue enrichment … in short, they’re objecting to Iran thumbing its nose at the US, not that they’re suddenly of the opinion that Iran is building nukes.

    I see that you too are hedging your language… the “capability” to deploy nuclear weapons means what, exactly?

  2. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    It seems to me you are leaping to conclusions based on very little definite information. The source of the quotation at the head of your post is Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, who is very low in the hierarchy of Russian officials. This means that his statement may well be propaganda. Furthermore, Lavrov’s “disapproval” is not equivalent to support for strong sanctions. All Russia has done is change tone, without being obliged to act. As for its opposition to South Africa, it is not equivalent to “pushing” a resoultion and this oppositon has in any case come to nothing.

    The above leads on to a question I would like to ask you. What should the United States be doing if Russia’s real intent is to give Iran enough time to acquire nuclear weapons?

    P.S. You must have meant to write “Russia’s tack”, not “Russia’s tact”.

  3. Bob

    I would add that the US-Russia 123 agreement — which POTUS would have liked to have submitted, along with the US-India 123 agreement, to Congress ages ago — probably also has a little something to do with Moscow’s public shift in rhetoric.

    Russia has wanted to cut this nuclear deal with the US for the longest time, but Russian-Iranian nuclear and defense cooperation has been perhaps the biggest obstacle to this deal since the end of Bush 41.

    Given that the House already approved and referred to the Senate the late Tom Lantos’ bill, H.R. 1400 (which would block US nuclear deals with any government that assists Iran’s noncompliant nuclear program), POTUS needs Russia at least to appear like a government that sort of, kind of, sincerely cares about Iran’s nuclear noncompliance before he can punt the 123 to Congress.

    The truth is, though, that if Russia truly cared about Iran’s noncompliance with IAEA safeguards and UN Security Council resolutions, then it would have suspended all Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation — Bushehr’s Russian-supplied LEU fuel rods, I’m looking especially at you — until Iran fully resolved the issues that led to noncompliance.

  4. Headline Junky (History)

    I’m pretty skeptical of the idea that the NIE did anything but undermine efforts to contain Iran’s program through diplomatic channels.

    As for Russia’s change in tune, notice that it came after it had completed delivery of uranium fuel to the Bushehr reactor, and coincided with the announcement by the Dept. of Commerce that Russia would no longer be excluded from direct uranium sales to American nuclear plants. Based on a back of the envelope calculation, the head of Rosatom estimated the deal to be worth $5-6 billion over the next ten years.

    Their newfound opposition to Iran’s program is welcome, but I think it has more to do with mutually beneficial commercial interests than with the NIE.

  5. Anya Loukianova


    I think you make some really good points. In regards to the comments section, Russia’s interest in the 123 agreement is exagerrated and H.R. 1400 (with all due respect to the late Hon. Tom Lantos) was misguided. Frankly, congressional policy on Russian-Iranian cooperation has been out of date for quite some time now (vs. the executive approval of Russia’s agreement to take back spent fuel from Bushehr). Note, for instance, the recent fuss over DOE’s Initiatives for Proliferation Program, which is unfortunately likely to get cut because Congress fails to understand the transparent nature of what Russians institutes are doing in Iran and the importance of having safety systems at Bushehr courtesy of Russian institutes, among other things. In this sense, measuring whether the Russians care about Iranian noncompliance by Congressional standards (e.g. suspending all cooperation in Bushehr) is the wrong way to look at things. Russian-Iranian cooperation is a good way to glimpse at (and potentially impact) what the Iranians are doing as long as Russia continues to not go over the line.

  6. Andy Grotto (History)

    Good points, Bob and Headline Junky — nuclear cooperation would certainly sweeten a tit-for-tat arrangement. I doubt that’s what happened here though. The LEU deal was going to happen with or without Russian support for a new round of sanctions for simple supply and demand reasons. Russia has tons of SWU capacity (around 40% of the world total, according to some estimates), sells LEU at cut-rate prices, and American utilities want to purchase directly from Russia rather than go through USEC, the U.S. enrichment monopoly that receives Russian imports duty-free as part of the Megatons to Megawatts program. So why is this deal materializing now? Probably because in November the U.S. Court of Int’l Trade ordered the Department of Commerce to lift the anti-dumping duties that have been applied to Russian LEU imports for more than 15 years.

    On a 123 Agreement, there is firm Congressional opposition to it, much more so than for the India deal. Much of that opposition derives from Russia’s Iran policy, particularly Bushehr. Russian support for sanctions won’t change that opposition. Besides, Russian interest in a 123 Agreement is often way overstated — remember, they’ve renounced the idea that Russia would become the world’s dumping ground for spent fuel.

    Hass, you’re missing the point. You’re correct to observe that Russia probably does not think Iran has an active weapons program today. But there is no question that Russia’s public posturing, statements, and rhetoric have changed significantly over the past 6-8 weeks. The question is why.

    And Karl, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Losyukov is “very low in the hierarchy of Russian officials.” That’s simply not true. But thanks for spotting the typo.

  7. Headline Junky (History)

    Andy, Judah from Headline Junky here. I, too, had noticed a shift in Russian rhetoric lately, but on closer inspection it does seem to be a bit hedgy. Take a look at this ITAR-TASS article with the entirety of Lavrov’s comments:

  8. hass (History)

    Actually, there is a lot of question of whether Russia’s public posturing has changed. The article you cite certainly doesn’t support that contention. Note that the sentence you’ve highlighted — “raised suspicion over the true aim” — is the BBC’s interpretation and not a quote from the Russians themselves. What the Russians said is entirely different: “it would be better [for Iran] to refrain from actions that raise tensions and create the impression Iran is ignoring the international community.”

  9. hass (History)

    Incidentally, on what groups do you accuse ElBaradei of engaging in “meddlesome freelance diplomacy” just because the IAEA has been doing its job of inspecting and reporting on Iran’s nuclear program?

  10. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    Before you write that something is “simply not true” in the future, be more attentive. Alexander Losyukov heads the foreign ministry’s Asia section, which is a minor post both in the Russian foreign service tradition and in practice. Alexander Saltanov, who heads the Middle East section and is personally responsible for negotiations over the Iran crisis, is far more important, not to mention the other six deputies of the foreign minister.

    I would be most grateful if you answered the question I posed in my previous comment.

  11. Liviu (History)

    I find your argumentation on how the NIE convinced the Russians that they could be tougher on Iran very convincing. While it goes a bit far, I think it’s also interesting how George Friedman argues that at the end of the day, the NIE might not be such a “coup” by the intelligence community against the president…

  12. Andy Grotto (History)

    Hass, that is a BBC paraphrase, but as Karl points out, it is a line from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Losyukov. It was made to Russian news agencies, and has been widely translated as “It adds to general suspicions of Iran regarding its potential desire to build nuclear weapons…Long-range missiles are one of the components of such weapons. That causes concern.” Not speaking Russia, I haven’t been able to verify the translation but wording like this has been used throughout the international press. See, e.g., “Iran: Russia Says New Rocket Raises Nuclear ‘Suspicions’,” from the NY Times. I can’t imagine a senior Russian official making a comment like this before the NIE.

    Karl, to answer your question I doubt very seriously that Russia’s “real” intent is to give Iran enough time to develop nuclear weapons. It would go against decades of Russian thinking on arms control. On our friend Losyukov, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about whether he is so junior that his quotations don’t matter.

    Friends, here’s to the pleasure…and peril…of reading tea leaves…

  13. Miles Pomper (History)

    How about a few other possibilities:
    1) Russia has been pushing for some time for a common threat assessment on Iran to forestall the construction of a US missile defense system in Europe. Maybe this is an attempt to move toward closing the threat perception gap with US after NIE?
    2) the possibility that Russia was testing the waters on the 123 agreement by seeing if this low-level signal was picked up, particularly with Lantos’ death. Note that Russia wants to move a 123 not because of storing spent fuel—at least not under Kiriyenko—but because of GNEP and other possibilities of reprocessing spent fuel—it really believes in the possibility of a plutonium enonomy (note how it recently rejiggered the plutonium disposition agreement with US to focus on this possiblility).
    Also remember that the Intl Court of Trade decision only dealt with SWU from Russia not Russian-mined uranium. That is Russian enrichment of uranium from Australia etc.

  14. hass (History)

    “Adds to suspicion” is not a reference to Russian suspicion – it is a reference to “creating impressions” In short the Russians are telling the Iranians to cool it as as to not give grist for the mill to the US — not that the Russians themselves are suspicious. This is thin peg to hang your claim that there has been a “undeniable” change in the Russian view. Note that Lavrov has said that regardless of what the NIE says, the Russians have never seen any evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, and the IAEA has pretty much cleared Iran of its past issues. Until that changes, the claim cannot stand.

  15. Mike H


    Why do you and Karl have to agree to disagree on Losyukov’s importance? He made a substantive point about Losyukov’s place in the Russian foreign affairs hierarchy. What is your response to that?

  16. Andy Grotto

    To Mike H — because I think we’ve exhausted this debate. But since you asked, I’ll elaborate. The issue here is not Losyukov’s formal place in the hierarchy, but whether what he says reflects where Russia’s thinking is heading. So even if he is not #1 or #2 in the hierarchy, a) he is still a Deputy Foreign Minister; b) he has spoken many times in the past with authority on Russia’s foreign policy positions (do a Lexis search of his name and you’ll see what I mean); and c) there’s no reason to think he’s not speaking with authority this time, particularly since to my knowledge the Russian government hasn’t repudiated his comments.

    Having someone like Losyukov, who has credibility on nuclear issues owing to his participation in the Six Party Talks but does not appear to have day-to-day involvement in the Iran dossier, make a statement like this is smart diplomacy on Russia’s part. It sends a clear signal without the immediately disruptive impact that would result if someone like Lavrov or Saltanov had made the comment.

  17. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    I do not wish to continue the debate regarding Losyukov’s seniority. However, it now seems that Losyukov’s statement has been casually dismissed already. A “diplomatic source” has apparently told Yevgeniya Novikova of the “Expert Online” website that Losyukov’s statement does not represent Russia’s official position. In the United States, this anonymous comment in an obscure publication could be dismissed as spurious, but in Russia noone would print such a remark without official sanction.

    I have found something of further interest in the Russian press. Retired major-general Vladimir Belous, a professor at the Academy of Military Sciences, had this to say to “Vremya” about the tests: “The USA is looking for any opportunity to prove that it needs the European ABM bases for defence against Iran, and the latter has given them an additional trump card. It will now be more difficult for Russia to persuade the Poles and the Czechs to abstain from agreeing to the construction of those bases.”

    Moreover, Putin clearly stated yesterday that “Iran has no such missiles [which can reach Poland], everybody knows that.” He did not even mention the nuclear programme.

  18. Mark Pyruz (History)

    Russia is merely acting out a protectionist policy for its own self-interest in nuclear fuel trade and production.

  19. Mike H


    Thanks for explaining that (and to Karl for his response). No snarkiness intended — I just learned a lot.

  20. Dan W (History)


    I am a first-time writer, but a long time reader and something that strikes me as coincidental in all of this is two things; 1) I agree with Miles’ 2/15 comments about the Missle Defense aspect. The more the Russians rail against US Third Site BMD plans, the more they need Iran to look the part (i.e.“compliant“and NIE-like) and toe the line. Therefore, it leaves one to wonder who those comments are directed towards (US vs. Iran) and if that is not Russia’s way of “shaming” or warning the Iranians to “play nice” and “knock it off” because their aggressive actions are impacting Russian interests elsewhere. Besides, any and all US attention and effort is payed to Tehran vs. Moscow, the more freedom of action the Russians have in Eurasia to pursue their own grand strategy. The more the Iranians defy and fuel US concerns/reasons for Czech and Polish sites, the harder it is to get what they (the Russians) want in Europe and wherever else there is American pressure (i.e. a buffer from Western [NATO/US] encroachment). 2)The second reasons is – of course – a more selfish and less-important reason, it deflects US national security attention away from their ratching up of strategic-nuclear muscle flexing (i.e. Tu-95 buzzing US carriers and Western European cities/harbors – as well as the launch of the first all-Russian built SSBN since the end of the Cold War) the Yuri Dolgoruki (by the way – why isn’t anyone talking about that rather significant accomplishment here at ACW? – not to say that I think it is a proven and mighty platform, but for all of Russia’s struggles – this is a big accomplishment for them)and the Russian military’s attempt to “look tough” on all threats/geopolitical fronts. This is not to say that Russia may not have its own doubts or concerns about Iran’s ambitions, intentions and capabilities, because history is chalk-full of examples where the student turns on his master and bites their hand. I am curious Andy, on what your take is of whether any of this also may have something to do with or some connection to the Russian-Chinese proposals on the ban of space-based weapons at the UN? If the Iranians continue to fuel American legitimacy to defend its interests, allies and itself, then the rest of the world will not be compelled to support the Russian-Chinese attempts at tying US miltary ambitions/capabilities in space. Any thoughts?

  21. Andy Grotto (History)

    Hi Dan, thanks for writing. Clearly, U.S. BMD plans in Europe are a significant factor in explaining Russia’s foreign policy outlook. But determining the magnitude of that factor’s influence on any particular Russian policy move is really hard. I tend to assume that Russian foreign policy, like in most countries, reflects the constellation of domestic political forces vying for influence over the Russian state. So most of the time, the motives behind a particular foreign policy move are likely to be mixed. There may be a dominant motivation, but it’s often not the only motivation.

    For that reason, I’m also a bit skeptical of conspiracy theories about grand strategy. They often look good on paper, but there’s usually a much more parsimonious explanation than some grand strategy (e.g., my theory about the NIE and Russia’s shift versus a Russian grand strategy linking its U.S., BMD, and Iran policies). Government/administration is such a messy business.

    On the China/Russia balancing coalition issue, that’s not something I worry about all that much. U.S. relations with China are at least as good as Russia’s relations with China, and arguably even stronger, given the huge trade volumes. Whatever alliance we see between those two (e.g., Shanghai Cooperation Organization) is more tactical than strategic, and rather weak at that. (What has SCO ever done besides hold meetings?) And most countries, I submit, would prefer it if the United States remained strong — perhaps not as the lone superpower, but certainly strong enough to exert real leadership. That’s certainly where most European countries are, along with our East Asian friends (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan). And if you talk to senior foreign policy analysts in the Middle East privately what you will often hear as an American (after being chastised over Iraq and how it has emboldened Iran and made it more troublesome) are nervous questions about whether the United States will disengage entirely from the Middle East. NAM countries are a different matter, but they don’t want China and Russia to dominate any more than they want the United States to dominate.

    Anyway, that’s my back of the envelope, pre-caffeine response.

  22. Dan W (History)

    Good Morning Andy,
    Thanks for the reply. Your insite is good and I think your comment about national and foreign policy being intrinsically linked is accurate. However, after many years of studying Russian military and nuclear strategy, their strategic culture, Russia’s geopolitical and grand strategy views – there is very little that happens on the Eurasian continent that doesn’t interest or impact Russia – and that creates this gray-area of overlap between national and foreign policy/efforts – they are almost one-in-the same. Therefore, they’re always going to be extremely concerned/over-inflate any percieved threat seen as “encroachment” on their territory or spheres of influence – which is just about anything it wants. Russia’s political and military mindset is overly-paranoid and defensive in theory/on paper – yet the true nature is overly offensive. So, in terms of how Russia sees foreign affairs like NATO expansion, US BMD Third Site issues, US efforts in Iraq/Iran, Middle Eastern and Central Asian affairs (i.e. Afghanistan – desire for a warm-water port for hundreds of years)and any number of other inter-related issues – it is seen through the glasses of national policy as well becuase these are their backyards and thus, the distinction between national and foreign policy is fine at best.
    Russia has a very different approach to dealing with its challenges/problems or achieving its own objectives than the USA – and it is usually linked to a geopolitical aim or a piece of their grand strategy that we have very little insite to or interest in because we see things from a very Western and Pro-US stance. Russia is much more concerned with the perceptiona and actions of their neighbors and its ability to defend themselves (think Mongols, Napolean, WWI, WWII, and countless other historical examples where Russia/USSR has been attacked) than we here in the US are able to appreciate because of our advantageous geography (Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and relatively militarily inept/friendly neighbors). I believe that Arms control has a very different purpose/utility inside the former Soviet Union and Russia than it does here in the US – to limit our freedom of action while preserving their own – and where in the past, the Soviets had only to worry about themselves and their actions to affect the “strategic balance” between them and the US – now they must come to the arms control table knowing that other nations can influence and impact the US approach/negotiations and Iran is one of those countries (hence my comment about the student biting the hand of the master) – in some way, Russia has helped create this problem, and now it is affecting them and their interests in a negative or unforeseen way, so it is no wonder why the Russians are taking aim at Tehran while they’re spouting off on arms agreements like CFE, threatening to withdraw from INF, begging for a future or follow-on agreement beyond START and advertising a joint Sino-Russian proposal on a ban of space-based weapons. Propaganda and the press is portraying the Russians as willing negotiatiors – and Tehran isn’t helping them look the part.
    You are right and I agree with you that the SCO isn’t worth the paper they write on. However, in the arms control world, perception is everything and to the millions of uninformed and disinterested media-listeners in this country and around the world, Russia can and will try to leverage that and influence world perception on many things using its propaganda machine knowing that people (both at home and abroad) will see the US, Europe, terrorists and whomever else is in their crosshairs as the aggressors and will sympathize with them – thus fostering the falisy that the Russians are merely doing what is necessary to defend themselves and their interests.

  23. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    I apologise for intruding on your discussion with Dan W, but I think there are some things which can be usefully highlighted in this particular context.

    To begin with a somewhat obscure point, I think that the case can be made that Russia is completely unlike any other country. As an example, consider the fact that Putin was appointed President before being elected and will now be appointed Prime Minister by his successor. I would suggest that Russia is ruled by a very small circle of people who have identical views on foreign policy issues, because of their common secret police (or security service, if you prefer) background. Hence, the conspiracy theories, as you termed them, of grand strategy may well apply to Russia more than they do to any other major power.

    This leads on to the issue of a China-Russia alliance. In the medium term, it is very likely that their interests are antidemocratic and expansionist. Therefore, in the final analysis the need to oppose the USA trumps any economic considerations. Even though they despise one another, but they hate America more. So it would be sensible for them to act together long enough to curtail American power, and to address bilateral disputes at a later time.