The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 17 May 2010

Iran, Sanctions, and Russia's Southern Flank

When the western media discusses Russia's position on international sanctions against Iran, it usually focuses its attention on the level of bilateral trade that the two countries enjoy. Two areas, in particular, are consistently noted: the sale of arms (particularly surface-to-air missile systems) and Russia's lucrative contract to construct two nuclear reactors at Bushehr.

But Russia's arms sales only go so far. It hasn't, for instance, followed-through on its agreement to supply Iran with the S-300 anti-aircraft system - something that would complicate any future air strikes against Iran's nuclear sites. Progress on the Bushehr reactor has also been slow, precipitating claims in Tehran that Moscow is deliberately delaying the project's completion. Furthermore, bilateral trade with Iran only represents a very small proportion of Russia's international total.

There is, however, another key issue that factors into the relationship between Tehran and Moscow: security. The proximity of the two countries, and Iran's position just across the Caspian Sea, means that Tehran could have considerable influence in the North Caucasus - should it wish to do so. It didn't exercise this influence during the two Chechen Wars - something for which Moscow is eternally grateful - and this was largely due to the congenial nature of relations between the two governments at that time. But Moscow continues to face instability in Dagestan and Ingushetia, a situation that has the potential to deteriorate rapidly in the future. If Russia supports stronger sanctions against Tehran then it's certainly possible Iran will act differently next time around.

So my question is: can the re-set in relations between the United States and Russia prove enough of an incentive to off-set the security fears that Moscow has regarding external meddling in the North Caucasus? Possibly. But the extent to which the re-set is likely to result in substantial economic benefits for Russia may be significant in explaining how strong any additional sanctions against Iran will be. One other determining factor - China.

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