Bush, Russia, and Iran- Part 3: The Iranians

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

In part 2 of this series, I noted how changes in Iran and their nuclear program started to influence relations between the US and Russia.  Today, we look at some of the dynamics of the relationship between the three countries and what resulted- the JCPOA.  (For further background, see part 1 here)

After Putin assumed power in 2000, it was presumed that relations between Iran and Russia would improve.  In July, 2001 Iranian gunboats halted oil exploration in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan, an area to which Iran also laid claim.  This prompted the Russian navy to conduct a large exercise in the Caspian Sea just to show who was really the boss in that area.  Putin also believed that some of the dialogue coming out of Tehran would lead to better relations with the US.

In 2005, Putin initially welcomed the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who he viewed more as a foil against the US than an actual friend.  He soon found that the “Death to America” chants did not necessarily translate into a pro-Russian stance in Tehran.  Putin genuinely believed his offer to enrich uranium to commercial grade would help allay Western fears about Iranian nuclear efforts.  While appearing accepting of the offer, Iran nevertheless insisted that they also continue to enrich uranium.  This heightened Western concerns and thwarted Putin’s efforts from achieving a diplomatic victory.  

Russia tried another strategy: they worked with China to water down UN resolutions aimed at Iran over their nuclear program.  This was designed to convey to the Iranians that Russia would protect them from Western allies, but that they also held the keys to increased sanctions if Tehran did not cooperate with Russia.  This strategy also failed.

The relationship between Iran and Russia over the nuclear issue was a strange dynamic.  Moscow gains delight in thwarting US foreign policy aims, but Russia also wants to be viewed as a responsible power.  Moscow wants to improve economic relations with Iran, but it also does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran.  Russia’s main tool was the UN Security Council.  On several occasions, they managed to have sanctions removed from the final resolution and they often held that up to the Iranians as proof that they had their back against the United States.

The construction of the atomic reactor as Bushehr was a flashpoint between Tehran and Moscow.  Russia was repeatedly delaying completion of the reactor. Russian newspapers said that Iran was satisfied with a proposed timetable for completion of the plant while Iranian newspapers and government officials clearly showed they were not satisfied with the timetable.  

One factor causing the delay of the opening of the plant was the on-going dispute over uranium enrichment.  Putin offered to do it for Iran and that idea gained international approval.  However, Iran insisted that it maintain the ability to enrich some of its own uranium.  

As the Putin era was “ending” and the Bush administration was coming to a close, there were rumors, later confirmed, that Israel was pressuring the United States about a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  No doubt aware of this talk, Iran sought the purchase of S-300  surface-to-air missiles from Moscow.  Even talk of this idea raised concerns in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Relations between Russia and Israel were very good at this time.   For their part, Putin said he could sell the missiles to Iran, but that he had not sold the missiles.  Iran declared that Putin was reneging on a previously approved purchase which Russia then vehemently denied.  The fact that all the Russian newspapers were basically running the same story is usually indicative of truth coming from Moscow.  This was later confirmed by Israeli sources that Putin had personally reached out to Israel and assured them no such sale of S-300s was taking place.  Part of the reason for the outreach is a sale of missiles to Iran would have jeopardized a deal for Russia to purchase advanced unmanned aerial technology from Israel. 

It appears that Iran was playing a game and using Russia as a pawn.  Just the perception of an impending sale of such missiles would have served as a deterrent against an Israeli or US strike on their nuclear facilities.

Suffice to say, the relationships between the United States (Bush), Russia (Putin) and Iran (Khatami, followed by Ahmadinejad) was complicated and often was acting on several layers simultaneously.  The events of 9/11 affected Bush in more ways than one.  His either “you’re with us or against us” attitude and rhetoric and his willingness to go it alone if need be dictated his foreign policy and led him into some questionable decisions.  Some of this was the result of the neoconservatives seizing control of the levers of policy-making at the CIA and Pentagon under Bush.

For Putin and Russia, initially they believed they could work with Bush, but events would prevent it so that by the end of Bush’s second term most pundits believed that US-Russian relations were at their lowest point since 1989.  This was the trend seen through many presidential administrations: relations start off with promise and end at yet another “low point.”

Why even discuss the Bush administration and Russia by way of Iran in relation to Spygate?  The desire to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions began to drive Obama’s foreign policy not only in the Middle East, but also as it regarded Russia.   When Bush proposed a missile-defense umbrella over Europe and used considerable diplomacy and political capital to get the Czech Republic and Poland to house these missiles, he explained that it was not to deter a Russian attack, but an Iranian one against Europe.  There was no secret that Iran was attempting to purchase and develop long-range ballistic missiles.  

But in the early days of the Obama administration, the proposal was scrapped (to the delight of Russia) while Poland and the Czech Republic were left holding the political baggage.  This selling out of a European ally was not part of some “Russia reset.”  Instead, it was a show of being anti-Bush.  It is likely why missile acquisition and development were eventually left out of the Iran nuclear accords agreed to by the Obama administration.

Obama had a domestic legacy (Obamacare), and he needed a foreign policy legacy before he left office.  That is where the Iranian nuclear agreement comes into play.  With a Republican candidate spouting off on the campaign trail that he would rip up the agreement, that legacy was threatened should this candidate ever achieve the impossible- actually win the Presidency.  Most Republicans voiced concerns, but the lone wolf- Donald Trump- was the most critical, consistent, and vehement.  It was not only the nuclear accords, it was NAFTA, the proposed TPP, and most importantly, NATO.  Protection of that legacy may have been a motivating factor for later actions.

Next: What was Senator Clinton doing?