The Realist Prism: Russia Sends Trial Balloons on Iran Sanctions Regime

The Realist Prism: Russia Sends Trial Balloons on Iran Sanctions Regime

Russia has been sending some confusing signals on Iran in recent weeks. Rumors began to circulate that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be heading to Tehran to meet with newly inaugurated President Hasan Rouhani—with some even predicting that Putin would "drop in" on Iran this week after completing his visit to Azerbaijan to confer with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. Stories were also released that Russia was reconsidering its unilaterally imposed boycott on selling advanced S-300 air defense systems to Tehran, or at least replacing them with another variant, the Antei-2500 system, as a way to get Iran to drop its legal action at the International Court of Arbitration in Geneva that charges Moscow with breach of contract over the S-300s.

So, was there a method to the madness of these leaks? They appeared to be test balloons—reminders that the unprecedented international sanctions that have exacted a toll on the Iranian economy over the past few years are fragile and that Russia could be prepared to reverse course on Iran. At a time when U.S. policymakers are worried that Iran is close to mastering the technologies needed to fabricate an atomic weapon, it would be a real setback for the Obama administration for Moscow to defect from the U.S.-led sanctions process. And supplying Tehran with sophisticated weapons systems would make a U.S. or Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities much more difficult to carry out. Perhaps the intent was to show a U.S. foreign policy establishment increasingly skeptical of the value of U.S.-Russia relations—and increasingly critical of Putin’s domestic policies—what some of the costs of a rupture might be.

Of course, Putin made no such surprise visit to Tehran or even to any of Iran's Caspian port cities, and Rosoboronexport—the Russian firm that handles arms exports—is as of this writing denying that there are any plans to reactivate the S-300 contract. However, Putin is set to meet Rouhani next month on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. An interesting question to pose is whether Rouhani would journey to Central Asia in an effort to break Iran out of its current isolation—and what he might do in the meantime to change the current dynamic.

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