The Point of Putin's Tehran Trip

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Caspian Sea summit in Tehran, Iran.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin is hopping mad with Washington has been obvious for some time now. In a speech in Munich last July, he lambasted the U.S. for its "unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions," claiming that "the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way" and slamming its "greater and greater disdain" for international law. Enraged by U.S. moves to station a missile defense system on his doorstep, Putin withdrew Russia from a Cold War-era treaty governing the size of conventional military forces in Europe, and ordered its old turbo-prop Bear bombers out of mothballs to fly nuclear patrols along old Cold War frontiers. Last week in Russia, he made the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense wait 45 minutes for him before delivering them a tongue-lashing over the missile defense plan. Another jab follows on Tuesday, when Putin becomes the first occupant of the Kremlin since Stalin to visit Tehran, a capital Washington would very much prefer to keep isolated. The Russian leader's message is plain: If the U.S. continues, as he sees it, to tread on Russia's toes, Russia has little interest in helping Washington achieve its strategic goals.

Putin arrives in Iran at a moment when the U.S. and its key European allies are pushing for a new round of sanctions aimed at persuading Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. But the likelihood of the U.N. Security Council approving new sanctions right now appears remote, given the veto power of China and Russia — both of whom differ substantially with the West on the nature of the problem with Iran, and on how to deal with it.

Nor are the differences merely tactical: Russia agrees that Iran has, in some of its activities, failed to meet the transparency requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the basis for the Security Council demand that it suspend enrichment until it can clear up questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and restore confidence in its intentions. But the IAEA and Tehran have agreed to a "work plan" and timetable for Iran to resolve the outstanding questions, which is why further U.N. action has been tabled pending the outcome of that process.

At the same time, Putin insisted after talks last week with French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the most energetic European supporter of the U.S. position — that there is no evidence to suggest Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. That assessment may put him at odds with Washington, but it is, in fact, consistent with the findings of the IAEA. The difference hinges over what defines a nuclear weapons program. Last week, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner wrote to his European colleagues urging support for tougher sanctions. "Time is against us," Kouchner warned, "because each day Iran gets closer to mastering enrichment technology, in other words to having a de facto military nuclear capacity."

What Kouchner makes clear is that the U.S. and its allies have defined mastering the technology of uranium-enrichment as a red line that Iran cannot be allowed to cross. But Kouchner exaggerates when he claims that this technology would give Tehran "de facto military nuclear capacity"; it simply gives Iran an important piece of nuclear infrastructure that is allowed under the NPT but could, if Iran pulled out of the NPT, be used to create weapons-grade materiel. While the demand that Iran suspend enrichment until it has answered the IAEA's questions enjoys broad support, the demand that Iran be denied the right to enrichment because it is a regime not trusted by the West is a much tougher sell. And Russia isn't necessarily buying.

On the contrary, an economically resurgent Russia views the Iran standoff as another opportunity to reclaim some of the strategic ground it lost after the Soviet collapse. It is pushing back against the U.S. because it sees Washington's power as having been used to decimate Moscow's influence in the former Soviet territories it considers its backyard. That strategic orientation has led Russia to make common cause with other regimes at odds with Washington, most important among them China; ironically, perhaps, Moscow and Beijing are more closely aligned now, against U.S. power, than they were during the Cold War, when their respective Communist Parties were at loggerheads.

Although both China and Russia have a stake in Iran — China is heavily invested in its energy sector, while Russia is building the country's nuclear reactor at Bushehr and also selling billions of dollars of weapons to the Islamic Republic — each has more important, and immediate strategic concerns of its own. Both could more easily live with a nuclear-armed Iran than Washington would, and neither sees Iran as a strategic threat. Still, Russia has plainly dragged its feet (by measure of years) over completing the Bushehr reactor, suggesting it may be keeping the Iranian reactor offline as leverage. The friendship between Tehran and Moscow is, at best, an uneasy one.

Russia may hold the key to the Iranian standoff, but it is unlikely to be moved by entreaties by Western leaders for President Putin to "act responsibly" on Iran. Gone are the days when gaining Western approval and gratitude would have been a Kremlin objective. Now, Russia's response will be driven by its own agenda. And in Putin's mind, it's unlikely to be separated from his broader strategic agenda, which most certainly includes a greater leveling of the global balance of power.