Why Russia Supported Sanctions Against Iran

Alexander A. Pikayev
June 23, 2010

Why Russia Supported Sanctions Against Iran: Presidents Medvedev and Ahmadinejad

Presidents Medvedev and Ahmadinejad,
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The following brief was drafted by Alexander Pikayev only a few days before his tragic death on June 16, 2010. It is perhaps the last example of the excellent analysis that he was known for throughout his too-short life. Since Dr. Pikayev was unable to revise the original draft, fellow CNS staff members have engaged in some minor editing of this text but have striven to leave the text as close to the original as possible.

On June 9, 2010 the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1929, its fourth round of sanctions against Iran for Tehran’s failure to halt the most controversial elements of its nuclear program. The resolution contained the toughest sanctions against the country to date, including a ban on exporting three major categories of conventional weapons. The resolution was supported by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the Russian Federation.

Russia’s support of the new round of the sanctions represents a noticeable change in its policy. In the fall of 2008, after Russia’s involvement in a war with Georgia was fiercely opposed by the Bush administration, Moscow effectively decided to block the international strategy of escalating sanctions it had pursued with five other world powers — the United States, China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The strategy started in 2006, and as a result by 2008 three rounds of sanctions had been developed by the group and introduced at the UN Security Council. However, due to Russia’s opposition and the change in US administrations, no new sanctions were adopted against Iran by the Security Council between March 2008 and June 2010.

Russia – Iran: Shifting Bilateral Priorities

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has had conflicting interests vis-à-vis Iran. On the one hand, Iran figured significantly in Moscow’s regional calculations. In the mid-1990s Tehran helped to end a bloody civil war in Tajikistan —a small strategically located post-Soviet Central Asian state with a population speaking a language closely related to the Iranian national language Farsi. Around the turn of the century, Russia and Iran cooperated closely in supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban, well before they became the major opponent of the US-led coalition in that country.

During both Chechen wars in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Tehran helped to mute criticism in the Islamic world of what was perceived as excessive use of force by Russia against Muslims. Despite the criticism, with Iranian assistance Russia was granted observer status to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Geopolitically and geoeconomically, the Caspian Sea and Iran provide Russia with access to the Indian Ocean. Nearly a decade ago, Tehran permitted a Russian strategic bomber to overfly its territory en route to joint maneuvers with India. Also, there were discussions on developing a North-South transportation corridor, which could connect Russia, as well as Europe, with India through Iranian territory.

Iran maintains reasonably good relations with neighboring tiny Armenia—the only Russian ally in the South Caucasus. This country is under blockade from Azerbaijan and Turkey due to disagreements about the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Russia’s ability to maintain access to Armenia through Georgia has always been at risk because of tense political relations between Moscow and Tbilisi. In this context, Iran could provide an alternative access route. Russia even facilitated construction of a natural gas pipeline (which it owns) connecting Iran with Armenia.

Economically, during the 1990s Iran played an important role in ensuring the survival of the Russian atomic energy industry. At that time, the Bushehr project was one of only four contracts that Russia had on nuclear power plants abroad (along with a fifth reactor under construction in Russia itself). A few years ago, there were also hopes that Iran would become one of the largest importers of Russian conventional arms. Furthermore, Russia and Iran possess two of the world’s largest proven reserves of natural gas. Russia’s energy sector was interested in developing Iranian energy reserves, and the two had a potential common ground for cooperation in an area of energy geopolitics.

However, Russian-Iranian relations have never been cloudless. Moscow looked suspiciously at Iran’s attempts to expand its influence in the Caucasus and the Central Asia, although so far Moscow’s efforts have not been very successful. Russia openly opposed Iran’s belligerent attitude towards Israel, where approximately a million Russian speakers live. Moscow officially rejects the most notorious anti-Israeli statements coming from Tehran.

By 2010 other interests had also shifted. The end of large scale warfare in Chechnya reduced the need for Iranian assistance in muting criticism from Islamic nations. Moreover, the task of stabilizing the North Caucasus requires working with the North Caucasian diasporas living in Turkey and some Arab countries, which have complicated relations with Iran. Similarly, stabilization in Tajikistan contributed to changing views on Iranian influence there. If ten years ago such influence was considered as positive, recently it has been evaluated in more competitive terms.

The value of cooperating with the Iranians in Afghanistan has been also reduced. Due to the massive presence of US-led troops in that country, the task of containing the Taliban, which is still a priority, requires interaction with the United States and its European allies in the first place. Iran might be useful for hypothetical alternative strategies, but its role in an eventual Afghan settlement has been marginalized.

Hopes for bilateral economic cooperation have not materialized either. Due to Iran’s stifling bureaucracy, joint energy projects still largely remain in the planning stage. Even Bushehr, which is finally entering its completion phase, has lost its importance for the Russian nuclear energy industry. Russia now boasts a large portfolio of contracts to build commercial reactors in China, India, Bulgaria, Ukraine, as well as in Russia itself. Iran also did not ultimately become a large importer of major categories of Russian conventional arms. Very little was done to develop the North-South transportation corridor.

Overall, in 2009 the Russian-Iranian bilateral trade balance hardly exceeded $3 billion. This is a very modest figure compared with Russia’s trade with neighboring Turkey, which in 2008 almost reached $30 billion. This means that, contrary to widespread views, Moscow has a relatively modest economic interest in Iran. Its trade with Iran is smaller than, say, Iranian trade with Germany. And it is several orders of magnitude behind Iran’s economic ties to China, given the East Asian giant’s plans to invest many billions of dollars in the Iranian economy.

Regarding geopolitical access to the Indian Ocean, the last decade demonstrated Moscow’s fundamental lack of interest in the area. For implementing limited naval missions in the region, like fighting against piracy, overflights over Iran are not needed. Even in the case of access to Armenia, the prospects that Turkey might lift its blockade as a result of the recent relative normalization of bilateral relations between Ankara and Yerevan seem a more practical approach than developing costly transportation infrastructure across the Iranian-Armenian border.

Russia’s Global Interests

While in the past regional priorities moved Moscow and Tehran closer to each other, global issues, including nonproliferation, divided them. Russia has always considered nonproliferation as one of its most important priorities. It has believed that nuclear proliferation, especially among neighboring countries, many of whom were historical adversaries, would greatly negatively affect its security given its vast perimeter of often vulnerable borders.

In 1990s, some analysts argued, that although nuclearization of Iran was undesirable, for Russia it would not be a catastrophe. First, politically Moscow and Tehran shared many common interests, which made a war between them unlikely. Secondly, Russia would possess huge nuclear superiority vis-à-vis Iran in the foreseeable future. This would permit it to rely on nuclear deterrence for preventing any attack from Iran.

However, later developments demonstrated that the situation was not that simple. Indeed, nuclear tests conducted by India in May 1998 did not cause major concern in Moscow. But the tests triggered similar explosions from Pakistan. For many analysts, that was a very worrisome development given the close ties between Islamabad and the Taliban, which at that time controlled a major part of Afghanistan. It also demonstrated that nuclear proliferation among friendly states could become a catalyst for further regional proliferation. Therefore, countries perceived as a source of security concerns could also obtain nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, large scale terrorist attacks in Russia at the beginning of the millennium, which led to hundreds of civilian deaths, forced the authorities to seriously consider the risk that terrorist groups might use nuclear explosive devices. The more countries possess nuclear arsenals, the greater probability that the weapons could leak into unauthorized hands. Although the terrorists attacking Moscow are primarily Sunni Muslims, the fundamentalist nature of the Iranian regime together with its possible erosion in the future motivated Russia to take a more critical look at Iranian nuclear efforts. So did Iran’s own actions in the nuclear sphere including its continuing expansion of its enrichment capacity, the discovery of a second clandestine Iranian enrichment site near Qum, and Iran’s rejection of Russian offers to enrich uranium hexafluoride for Bushehr and provide more highly enriched fuel for a research reactor that produces medical isotopes.

During the last few years, this has led Moscow to place growing pressure on Iran. First, Russia began to insist that spent fuel from the Bushehr plant would have to be returned in order to prevent its plutonium content from being separated for use in weapons. Without such an agreement, Russia threatened not to deliver fresh fuel and thus block the reactor from operating. Russia had insisted on no such conditions during the 1990s. From 2003 to 2005 Moscow provided the EU-3 (France, German and the United Kingdom) with political support as it attempted to solve the Iranian nuclear issue diplomatically. In 2006, after Iran started large scale uranium enrichment, Russia accepted the idea of discussing this development in the UN Security Council, and between 2006 and 2008 voted for all three resolutions containing sanctions against Tehran.

Russian disapproval of Iranian nuclear activities was demonstrated by delays in delivering S-300 air defense systems. In 2005, Russia and Iran signed a contract for Moscow to deliver such systems. However, despite the risk of paying a penalty, Moscow delayed the deliveries for several years citing “technical reasons.” Many analysts, however, linked the delays to pressure from the United States and Israel. However, previously Russia had shown its ability to withstand such pressure if it was convinced that pursuing a disputed deal was in its interests. It happened previously with Bushehr in the 1990s; with delivering fresh fuel to India in the early 2000s, when such deliveries were prohibited; and with some arms sales to the Middle East.

Considerable delays in completing Bushehr are also often explained by a desire to exert additional pressure on Iran. Other experts though tend to link them to multiple technological, financial and organizational complications involved in the project itself.

Aggressive Iranian rhetoric denouncing UN Security Council resolutions contradicts another important Russian interest. The Kremlin regularly states that the UN Security Council represents the central institution for preserving international peace and security. Critical Iranian statements together with Iran’s unpunished policy of noncompliance with the resolutions undermined the credibility of the institution and, thus, calculations Russia associates with it.

US-Russian Relations

Although Russian-Iranian relations have their own merit, at the same time, for Moscow, they might be viewed as a bargaining chip in its policy towards the United States as well. Russia’s refusal to continue supporting further pressure on Iran after the “mini-Cold War” with the United States caused by the war in the Caucasus in 2008 is a telling example. This also produced a bit of a paradox. Russia’s desire to punish the Bush administration for what was perceived in Moscow as overreaction to the 2008 Russian-Georgian war appeared for a time to outweigh Russian interests related to nonproliferation and the UN role. But using overtures to Iran as a bargaining chip also means that in a different context, one of improved US-Russian relations, Moscow could attach less priority to potential benefits of interacting with Iran in the region.

The Bush administration made the entry into force of a bilateral agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation with Russia dependent upon Moscow’s help on the Iranian issue. In May 2008 then President Putin signed a decree imposing sanctions against Iran stipulated by a UN Security Council resolution. A few days later, the Bush administration submitted the nuclear cooperation agreement to Congress. However, in September of that year the agreement was removed from the consideration due to disagreements over the war with Georgia.

Ironically, the absence of the nuclear agreement caused more problems for US trade interests. Even in without an agreement, the Russian nuclear industry is permitted to export low enriched uranium to the US market. At the same time, US enterprises were largely prohibited from exporting to Russia. Moscow does not need access to US civilian nuclear technology, since it possesses indigenous capabilities. It could also import necessary hardware from outside the United States—particularly from several European countries and Japan.

For more than a decade, the Russian nuclear industry expressed an interest in importing spent fuel from nuclear power reactors of US origin from third countries (such as South Korea) for further storage or reprocessing. In the absence of the nuclear cooperation agreement, such import is legally impossible. Most likely this is the major reason why Moscow is committed to the deal.

The May 2010 decision of the Obama administration to resubmit the agreement to Congress certainly was a measure intended to bring Russia on board on Iran again. There were other gestures, such as lifting US sanctions from various Russian companies and universities for their alleged cooperation with Iran in sensitive areas in the past. Together with the improved state of overall US-Russian relations, these played a role in changing the balance of calculations in Moscow.

Russian-Iranian Quarrel

Russia’s gradual shift away from Iran, which one could observe since 2005, did not remain unnoticed in Tehran. Initially, Iranian officials carefully avoided expressing their disappointment openly. Only the Iranian media regularly published articles criticizing Russia for its support of UN sanctions. To be sure, however, some of the failures of Russia’s ambitious energy plans in Iran can be interpreted as deliberate retaliation from Iranian leaders.

However, since 2009 Iranian officials changed their tactics and commenced verbal attacks against Moscow. These were concentrated on complaints about delays with Bushehr and the S-300 deliveries. In May 2010 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went so far as to criticize President Medvedev personally, and warned that the Russian leader’s support of the sanctions would be remembered in history. In 2009 Tehran also suddenly closed its airspace to a Russian jet fighter en route to an arms exhibition in Bahrain, though earlier it had granted the necessary permission. The jet had to return to Russia. The next day the Iranians renewed their approval and issued an official apology.

In another development, Ahmadinejad ordered the establishment of a commission which would study a damage inflicted to Iran by the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States by their occupation of the country during World War II (1) and interference into Iranian domestic affairs in 1953. (2) The Russians react very strongly to any perceived attempts to reinterpret the history of World War II, which led to the loss of 27 million Russian lives. If Tehran sought a quarrel with Moscow, establishing such a commission would be the best step.

Deterioration in the bilateral relationship was reflected in a reduction in the intensity of top level meetings between Russian and Iranian leaders. Then President Putin personally met with Ahmadinejad several times, and even visited Tehran in late 2007. President Dmitry Medvedev has had only one short meeting with the Iranian President, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in June 2009. (3) Iran participates in that organization as an observer and has expressed interest in gaining full membership there.

It seems that in the context of the new sanctions resolution, Tehran and Moscow have decided to refrain from bilateral top level meetings. On June 9, 2010, at the Istanbul summit of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (4) now Prime Minister Putin met Mr. Ahmadinejad only in a multilateral framework— no bilateral meeting was reported.

On June 11, 2010, the Iranian President did not attend an SCO summit held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Some Russian media reported, that the SCO states indicated that they did not want him to attend, although publicly the Russian Foreign Minister said that it was Ahmadinejad’s decision not to attend. Iran was represented by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. For several years Iran lobbied for full membership in the SCO. Its bid was not accepted under the pretext that the organization had not elaborated rules for accession. By the Tashkent Summit, however, rules had been agreed upon and were approved during the meeting. To the disappointment of the Iranians, the document contained a provision under which no country under UN sanctions could become a new SCO member. Among the candidates, only Iran has such problem. Thus, Russia and China used Iranian bid for membership in the SCO as an additional tool to press Iran to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions. Likely, Moscow also used this as a punishment for Tehran’s recent anti-Russian rhetoric and actions.


Not surprisingly, Russia’s support of the UN Security Council resolution on new sanctions against Iran met criticism from hardliners in Moscow. They argued that the sanctions created an unnecessary quarrel between Russia and Iran and that these measures would benefit the United States rather than Russia. However, implementation of the sanctions does not require ratification in the Russian parliament; instead they enter into force by a Presidential decree.

Pro-Iranian “lobbies” in the government and media are too weak to undermine the implementation of the UN sanctions. By directly attacking President Medvedev and seeking a meeting with Prime Minister Putin in Istanbul, Mr. Ahmadinejad clearly hoped to take advantage of the alleged ‘crack’ between the top two Russian leaders. To his disappointment, Putin’s remarks in Turkey clearly demonstrated a united position among Russian leaders in support of the UN sanctions.

Russia’s official statements regarding the sanctions on Iran outlined criteria and limits that were important for the Kremlin, including assurances that:

  • the sanctions would not be paralyzing, and therefore not affect ordinary people;
  • the resolution would not contain permission to use force; and
  • Russia would be able to fully defend its economic interests allowing cooperation with Iran to continue in such areas as peaceful use of nuclear energy and civil space research.

Moscow notably remains opposed to more intrusive unilateral sanctions and if these sanctions were to affect Russian entities, retaliatory measures could follow.

These Russian statements show that the United States and Russia should manage the implementation of sanctions in a cooperative manner. In the United States, the sanctions were praised because they might open doors to more intrusive unilateral or multilateral sanctions to be imposed by the United States, EU and, maybe, some Asian allies. Yet expansion of sanctions beyond those agreed within the UN Security Council is exactly what Moscow opposes. Furthermore, stern Russian objection to “paralyzing” sanctions demonstrates how difficult a dialogue could become should a fifth round of sanctions become necessary. Continuing cooperation between Russia and Iran in civil nuclear, missiles and space areas could keep many in the United States concerned that Iran is still able to acquire sensitive nuclear and missile technologies from Russia. Finally, the Kremlin is not ready to grant its support for a hypothetical resolution sanctioning military use of force.

After the sanctions resolution was approved, Russia and Iran tried to limit the damage it inflicted on their relationship. Moscow reaffirmed its commitment to complete the Bushehr reactor in August 2010. Some Russian officials even mentioned ongoing talks with the Iranians on building new nuclear light water power plants in Iran.

Indeed, halting Bushehr construction at this final stage would create significant problems. The Russians have already delivered fresh fuel for the reactor —several dozen tons of low enriched Uranium (LEU). The Iranians themselves produced approximately two tons of LEU—an order of magnitude less than what the Russians provided. Abrogating the contract might stimulate the Iranians to seize control of the fresh fuel. As a result, their stockpiles of LEU could increase overnight by dozens of times. It is not excluded, that they could activate the reactor by themselves, ignoring associated safety risks. In that case, spent fuel would also remain under Iranian control with the possibility of using it to extract plutonium. Besides that, further delays could damage the business reputation of Rosatom, a Russian state monopoly responsible for the Bushehr project.

On June 11, 2010, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin, who is in charge of bilateral relations with Asian countries, met with the Iranian ambassador to Moscow. They discussed further development of bilateral relations, particularly economic ones. They also called for establishing “necessary positive information background” which could be interpreted as an effort to avoid making new declarations that further damaged the bilateral relationship. It is interesting to note that after adoption of the sanctions resolution, anti-Russian rhetoric in Iran visibly diminished.

The most active debates took place around S-300 deliveries. The UNSC Resolution 1929 does not contain any direct prohibition for such delivery. It establishes an embargo over major categories of conventional weapons, but did not mention air defense and anti-missile interceptors. Reportedly, it was Russia which insisted on that list so that it could exempt the S-300 contract away from the sanctions.

However, some Russian official sources claimed that the resolution did actually prohibit the deliveries, while others insisted that there is no such prohibition in the document. On June 11, 2010, the Foreign Ministry stressed a need to study the document in detail before making a conclusion on whether it covers S-300s. On June 12, 2010 Sergei Ivanov, the Deputy Prime Minister supervising, among other things, arms export, said that the resolution does not contain the prohibition, but the fate of the contract requires a political decision.

In the case of the S-300s, Moscow will likely try to attain two conflicting goals. On the one hand, it wants to keep freedom of maneuver around the contract, in order to maintain a bargaining chip with both the United States and Iran. On the other, the Kremlin is interested in limiting the damage to its relationships with Tehran. For that, a decision by the Kremlin that the UNSC Resolution 1929 indirectly prohibits the deliveries might be considered as face saving and attractive.

Under Russian law, a list of items prohibited or restricted for exporting to Iran under the new sanctions resolution should enter into force with the publishing of a relevant Presidential Decree. In the spring of 2008, it took approximately six weeks between adopting the sanctions resolution and issuing the decree. Some Russian officials have already said that the expected decree would contain a final solution of the fate of the S-300s. Although, the systems might not be included into the decree in order to avoid tying Russia’s hands, it is inconceivable, that in the present environment the Russian leaders might decide to resume deliveries. Most likely, the contract will remain frozen by a political or legal decision for the foreseeable future.


Conflicting Russia’s interests vis-à-vis Iran makes it difficult to fully and quickly accept the US position on Tehran. However, Moscow’s gradual shift away from Tehran, evident during the last decade, has moved Russia closer to the United States and some European countries. At the same time, support of the sanctions has visibly strained Russian-Iranian relations. Although Iran plays much smaller role in Russian regional and economic priorities than ten years ago, still Moscow feels a need to maintain a positive relationship with Tehran. Opposition to more intrusive measures going beyond the UNSC Resolution 1929 declared by Russia means that any effort at further steps will simultaneously introduce a new round of painful US-Russian discussions. However, if the improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow that took place during last two years is extrapolated into the future, the outcome of those discussions could still be quite positive.


(1) In 1941 the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom occupied Iran in order to prevent its participation in the World War II on the side of the Nazi Germany. The occupational authorities changed government in Tehran and in 1943 the Iranians proclaimed war against Hitler.
(2) In 1953 the United States and the United Kingdom participated in ousting a nationalist government in Tehran.
(3) The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was founded in 2001 by China, Russia, and four Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Later, four other countries received the status of observer—India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia.
(4) The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia was established in 2002 under initiative of Kazakhstan and has 20 member states and 10 observers from all regions of Asia.

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