Russia’s Lukewarm Support for International Sanctions against Iran: History and Motivations

Russia’s Lukewarm Support for International Sanctions against Iran: History and Motivations

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Cole J. Harvey

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Richard Sabatini

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


As international suspicions regarding the nature of Iran's nuclear program have continued to mount, Russia has been less eager than the United States and its European allies to criticize Tehran and has been more reluctant to consider applying a new round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Given the Obama administration's intention to pursue punitive measures against Iran through the U.N. Security Council, Russia (along with China) occupies a critical position in determining whether proposed multilateral sanctions resonate within the Iranian regime or fail entirely. Both states possess veto power within the UNSC, thus retaining the power to block any measures they deem unnecessarily harsh or counter to their interests. The five permanent members of the Security Council continue to disagree regarding the specific extent and severity of any sanctions intended to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

The following analysis considers the history of Russian support for applying sanctions against Iran in the Security Council and examines Russia's evolving stance on a fourth round of sanctions, following the discovery of the Qom site and the rejection of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) deal that would have shipped Iran's current stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad for higher enrichment and fabrication into targets for the production of medical isotopes. Lastly, it considers Russia's cooperation with Iran in the nuclear energy and conventional arms fields, the two countries' overall economic ties, and Russia's strategic interests in Iran.

Action in the Security Council

Russia has joined in four resolutions in the Security Council demanding that Iran halt its uranium enrichment program. In each case, Russia has insisted upon less stringent sanctions than the United States has proposed.

Resolution 1696

Resolution 1696, passed on July 31, 2006, was the first action taken by the Security Council related to Iran's uranium enrichment adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which makes the resolution legally binding on member states. The resolution mandated that Iran suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment and plutonium processing, including research and development, by August 31, 2006, or face further action by the Security Council.[1] The resolution was a compromise between France, the United Kingdom, and the United States on one side, and China and Russia on the other. The three Western powers favored harsher language, while China and Russia urged patience. Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters, "We are not in a rush at all," as the text of the resolution was under negotiation. "We do not want to ambush Iran in any way. We're very much in a negotiating political mode. We do not want to dictate things to Iran."[2] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered a slightly less nonchalant version of the Russian position in separate comments, saying on July 19, 2006, "If after a certain period we don't hear an answer from Iran and discussions aren't renewed, we will look in the Security Council at additional measures."[3]

Resolution 1737

Iran ignored the Security Council's demand that it cease uranium enrichment activities and rebuffed a package of incentives offered by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.[4] In response, the Security Council passed Resolution 1737 on December 23, 2006, imposing the first round of international sanctions on Iran. The resolution required states to prevent the transfer of "materials, equipment, goods and technology" that could contribute to Iran's development of uranium enrichment, plutonium production, or nuclear weapon delivery systems. In a step to induce Russian support, the resolution made an exception for materials intended for light-water reactors of the kind that Russia is building at Bushehr, including the low-enriched uranium that will fuel that reactor. The Security Council also decided in the resolution to freeze the financial assets of 40 individuals and 35 entities involved in the Iranian nuclear and missile programs.[5]

Moscow rejected elements of an earlier European draft of the resolution that included a travel ban on persons involved with the Iranian nuclear and missile program. Russian diplomats worked to narrow other provisions, like the limitations on exports of nuclear-related technology and materials to Iran.[6] Reprising his comments at the time of Resolution 1696, Vitaly Churkin stated his country's position that the resolution should be aimed at encouraging Iran to negotiate, rather than inflicting punishment.[7]

Resolution 1747

In response to continued Iranian defiance of the previous resolutions, the Security Council agreed to Resolution 1747 on March 24, 2007. Resolution 1747 broadened the sanctions imposed on Iran, expanding the number of individuals and entities subject to the freezing of financial assets, and calling on states and international organizations to deny any loans or grants to the Iranian government except for humanitarian and developmental purposes. The resolution also called upon states to restrict the entry of certain individuals into their territory. Furthermore, the resolution prohibited Iran from exporting "any arms or related material," and called on other states to "exercise vigilance and restraint in the supply, sale or transfer" of certain weapons to Iran.[8]

This time Ambassador Churkin said that agreement on the text emerged after "protracted negotiation and complicated tradeoffs," while stating that the resolution was "more balanced and coherent than the initial text."[9]

Resolution 1803

The Security Council passed Resolution 1803 on March 3, 2008, modestly expanding the list of individuals and organizations targeted by the previous sanctions. The five permanent members of the Security Council agreed to a preliminary draft in January during a debate in which the most "active" participants were reportedly U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.[10] Shortly after this agreement, Iran successfully launched a rocket into space, describing it as a space launch vehicle that would serve as the preliminary test for future launches of Iranian-built satellites.[11] The expertise and technical competence displayed by successfully launching a rocket into space bear some similarities to those required to launch an intercontinental missile. As such, the launching of the Iranian rocket sparked strong concerns that such a feat would signify that Iran had crossed a certain threshold in its development of longer-range ballistic missiles.[12] Following this test, Lavrov criticized Iran in relatively harsh terms, saying, "We don't approve of Iran's permanent demonstration of its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue to enrich uranium."[13]

Resolution 1835

On September 27, 2008, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1835. Resolution 1835 emerged as a response to a September 2008 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicating that Iran had not suspended uranium-enrichment-related activities. Specifically, the report highlighted Iranian progress with regard to enrichment related activities, particularly that the total amount of uranium hexafluoride fed into the installed cascades since the beginning of operations was 7600 kg.[14] From that amount, the report noted that the fed uranium hexafluoride at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant had produced a total of 480 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Furthermore, the report noted the continuing installation of centrifuge modules, numbering 3,000, as well as the addition of 12 new cascades. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that the new resolution would help to further the goals of the P5+1 in ensuring that "there is no military dimension to the nuclear program in Iran."[15]

A Fourth Round of Sanctions: Early Ambiguity and Increasing Support

Since the Obama administration's decision to pursue multilateral sanctions against Iran in 2010, Russia has remained hesitant to commit to the prospect of further punishment. Moscow has consistently maintained that sanctions posses very limited utility and overall chances of success are slim. Russia's stance towards sanctions is not baseless, as various studies of sanctions by a large number of political scientists have analyzed the significant limitations and flaws of sanctions.[16] Before the revelation of the secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom in late September, Russia firmly established its preference for continued dialogue between Iran and the international community. In a statement in early September before the Qom revelation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Russia's reluctance to support tougher sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council, and dismissed a U.S. timetable for securing progress in the termination of Iran's uranium enrichment program.[17] Russian officials consistently reiterated the self-defeating nature of imposing a strict timetable for negotiations as well as the dangers of rushing to implement sanctions.

However, Russia's policy now appears to favor imposing limited sanctions on Iran. Following a meeting with Obama on April 8, Medvedev agreed with the need to change Iran's behavior. "Unfortunately, Iran is not responding to a number of constructive proposals that have been made," Medvedev said, "and we cannot turn a blind eye to this." He stated that any sanctions endorsed by the Security Council would have to aimed at "specific nonproliferation objectives," rather than harming the Iranian people.[18]

The main driver for this shift toward favoring limited sanctions has been Iran's recalcitrant behavior. Iran has declined to participate in an international low-enriched uranium reserve established by Russia at Angarsk, to provide assurance of supply of reactor fuel for states that rely on the world market rather than enrich uranium domestically. The Angarsk facility was meant, at least in part, to dissuade Tehran from developing its own uranium enrichment capability.[19] Lengthy negotiations occurred but resulted in sparingly little progress.

On September 25, 2009, the leaders of the United States, France and the United Kingdom announced that Iran had been developing a secret uranium enrichment site near Qom. The revelation cast further doubt on the purportedly peaceful nature of Iran's enrichment program, and came as "a giant surprise to the Russians," according to an Obama administration official.[20]

Iran's dismissal of a proposed plan that would involve shipping most of Iran's current stockpile of uranium out of the country for further enrichment and eventual return—the so-called fuel swap—contributed to Russia's willingness to support sanctions, particularly given Russia's close participation in the proposal. Under the terms of the deal, 1,200 kg of Iran's LEU (low-enriched uranium) would have been sent to Russia for further enrichment. Following this enrichment, the LEU would be fashioned into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes. The trade would have removed much of the uranium stockpile from Iran, depriving Tehran of the ability to further enrich it into bomb-grade material. The counterproposals made by Iran would not have fully removed the uranium stockpile from Iranian control, and were rejected by the United States and others. After agreeing to the draft plan, Iran rejected the deal in late November 2009, instead insisting that any enrichment of its nuclear material occur only within Iran itself or that the parties exchange Iranian LEU for fuel for the TRR simultaneously within Iran.[21]

In early November 2009, President Medvedev issued a statement declaring that Russia would potentially support sanctions if Iran did not commit to the proposal.[22] Later that month, Russia and China supported an IAEA resolution calling for an immediate freeze on uranium enrichment within Iran.[23] Following Iran's refusal to comply with a U.S. deadline to show progress on halting its nuclear program by the end of 2009, Lavrov issued a statement in late January warning Tehran that the international community would not wait forever for Iran to comply.[24] Although Lavrov refrained from explicitly supporting new sanctions against Iran, he indicated that Russia might cooperate with new sanctions if the international community did not rush to punish Iran.[25]

Shortly into the new year, Iran announced plans to enrich uranium to higher levels. Iran's Atomic Energy Organization described the decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent as a civilian one meant to provide fuel for a research reactor producing medical isotopes.[26] The United States announced it would respond by seeking U.N. support for sanctions within weeks. Continued Iranian defiance has led to indications that increasing Russian frustration with Tehran might lead to greater support for sanctions. On February 16, 2010, a spokesperson for President Medvedev stated that "Russia still believes that Iran should cooperate more actively and broader with the IAEA and other countries in providing the information about its nuclear program. The world community should believe that the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful, but no one can rule out sanctions, if the country does not fulfill its commitments."[27]

In a potential sign of increasing unity between Moscow and Western powers on the Iran issue, Russia joined France and the United States in a February 16, 2010 letter to the IAEA criticizing Iran's decision to enrich uranium beyond the level required for civilian power reactors. The three countries wrote that Iran's decision is "wholly unjustified, contrary to U.N. Security Council resolutions and represent(s) a further step toward a capability to produce highly enriched uranium."[28]

Amid this speculation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to discuss limiting future sanctions strictly to the nonproliferation context, with limited effect on the general population. On February 25, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated:

    In the absence of progress in this area, and with the Iranian leaders not reacting to a number of constructive compromise agreements offered to them, including the agreement on supply of fuel for the Tehran research reactor, I do not rule out that the UN Security Council will be compelled to reconsider this situation. It's another matter that in any case, sanctions by themselves, and this is our profound conviction, hardly bring about the desired results. Therefore, if such proposals go to the Security Council, we will watch very carefully what they are specifically about. If sanctions are to pursue objectives that go beyond the task of preventing violations of the nonproliferation regime, it will, of course, cause complications in the work…We do not want observance of the nonproliferation regime to be used as a pretext to push for any other aims, including the strangulation of Iran, adoption of measures that will actually worsen the humanitarian situation, the position of the population. This is contrary to existing approaches in the Security Council.[29]

Speaking to students in Qatar on February 15, 2010 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Obama administration's goal at the Security Council, saying, "We are planning to try to bring the world community together in applying pressure to Iran through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard."[30] In separate remarks, Clinton stated that Russia has indicated "publicly and privately that it can and will support sanctions."[31]

Given Russia's reluctance to accept punitive measures in the past, it remains unlikely that Moscow will agree to a wide range of strong punishments. Rather, Russia will most likely agree to certain additional sanctions that will least impact its own interests and investments. Despite this position, Russia clearly does not want to see Iran emerge as a nuclear state. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev stated on February 10, 2010 "At the same time, Russia, just like other countries is against Iran having nuclear weapons. After all, if the nuclear club expands, security in the world would decline seriously."[32]

In public statements, top-level Russian officials have described sanctions as a regrettable but, at times, unavoidable tool. Speaking a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on March 1, 2010, Medvedev said of Iran that:

    Unfortunately, our remonstrances of the Iranian leadership, our appeals to work towards a peaceful nuclear programme under the supervision of the international community have not yielded results. We are optimists and we have not lost our belief in the possibility of success. However, if this fails, I have already said repeatedly that Russia is ready to consider sanctions together with our partners.

Nonetheless, Medvedev then immediately ruled out the kind of broad, "crippling" sanctions that some in Israel and the West have advocated, saying that "These sanctions should be targeted and intelligent. They must not be directed against the civilian population. And they must only be implemented in extreme circumstances, the point at which dialogue is no longer possible."[33]

As such, Medvedev's comments likely signify Russian unwillingness to support a ban on gasoline sales to Iran, a proposal that has gained some traction U.S. foreign policy circles. Indeed, both houses of Congress have passed separate bills that would penalize companies that export refined petroleum products to Iran.[34] Although gasoline sanctions might constitute "crippling" measures given Iran's sensitivity to gasoline availability, they would also impose substantial hardship on the Iranian public at large.

Medvedev's comments directly conflict with earlier pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Medvedev in mid-February and pressed for "severe sanctions," notably bans on the import of refined petroleum products and export of fuel Iranian crude oil.[35] Nevertheless, Netanyahu noted that Moscow agreed to delay delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran, saying, "On this issue Russia is taking into consideration the needs for stability in the region."[36] Prior to Netanyahu's visit, Russian officials consistently emphasized the legitimacy of the S-300 sale, noting, "This deal is not restricted by any international sanctions, because we are talking about deliveries of an exclusively defensive weapon."[37] Following Netanyahu's visit, Russian officials announced that Russia would indeed supply S-300 missiles to Iran after the resolution of unspecified technical issues. Foreign Minister Lavrov remarked, "There is a contract and there are a few things which need to be sorted out before fulfilling it."[38] Although Lavrov refrained from divulging further information, any and all technical details or issues are more than likely a polite cover for continuing to withhold the missiles.

Russian-Iranian Trade, Nuclear Cooperation and Interests

Russia's relative reluctance to support sanctions against Iran can be attributed to a variety of factors—economic, diplomatic, and strategic. When considering the Russian attitude towards Iran, it must be recalled that Iran is a close neighbor to Russia, and that the two states cooperate in a variety of spheres. Further, the Russian leadership likely sees the Iranian situation as a foil to U.S. influence in the greater Middle East. Moscow probably does not want to see the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, and has made statements to that effect, but it does benefit from prolonging the tension between Iran and the West.[39]

Russian and Iranian nuclear cooperation in the post-Soviet era began in January 1995, when Russia agreed to construct two 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactors at Bushehr in southern Iran. The original contractor, the German company Siemens, abandoned the project following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the bombing of the reactor site by Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Value estimates for the Russian contract for constructing the reactor range between $780 million and $1 billion.[40] Initial construction plans called for completion by 2000-2001, but the project has been plagued with delays.[41] In early 2010, Russia was estimating that the first reactor would come online in 2010.[42] Frustrated by the slow development of the project, some Iranian officials have suggested that Russia is intentionally delaying the completion of the reactor.[43]

Russia and Iran signed a ten-year contract in 1995 for Russia to supply nuclear fuel for Bushehr from Novosibirsk.[44] Following pressure from the United States, Russia also agreed take back spent fuel from Iran to mitigate proliferation concerns.[45] In December 2007, Russia delivered the first batch of fuel; like the reactor itself, the low-enriched uranium fuel is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. [46] [47] Russia completed the delivery of 132 tons of fuel in January 2008.[48] Russian officials indicated at the time that activation of the reactor might occur in late 2008.[49] On March 2, 2010, the IAEA concluded a peer review of Iran's safety regulation at Bushehr, commending the Iranian staff for demonstrating clear commitment to security and safety while noting the presence of an excellent computerized documentation control system.[50] However, the review did find a shortage of staff and subsequently urged Iranian officials to maintain and increase the number and expertise of technical personnel at the site.

Economic considerations are probably not the primary factor motivating Russia to protect Iran. Russian-Iranian trade totaled approximately $2 billion dollars in 2007, a small fraction of Russia's foreign trade. Russia exported $295.6 billion dollars of goods in 2009, and imported $196.8 billion.[51] Any business lost from Iran due to international sanctions would likely have a small effect on the overall Russian economy, although trade with Iran is quite important to some individual sectors (and, most likely, to influential individuals). For example, in 2007 Iran ordered five new passenger aircraft from Russia, the largest foreign order for Russian civilian airplanes in "many years."[52]

Apart from constructing Iran's Bushehr reactor, Russia is also the primary arms supplier to Tehran. From 2002 to 2008 (the most recent year that data is available), Russia provided 49 percent of Iran's arms imports by dollar value. China is the runner-up for this period, supplying 31 percent. Much of Iran's purchases from Russia were surface-to-air missiles and missile launchers.[53] In December 2007, Iranian officials announced the pending Russian delivery an unspecified number of advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, which are capable of intercepting enemy aircraft or missiles from as far away as 150 kilometers.[54] Although officials omitted specific details, comments indicated that Russia and Iran had completed the contract for the missile delivery several years earlier.[55] As of February 14, 2010, Moscow had delayed any deliveries of the S-300, according to the deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council.[56] The S-300 series of Russian long-range surface-to-air missiles were initially developed to defend against aircraft, but were later improved to intercept ballistic missiles. Israel and the United States have objected to the sale of such weapons in the belief that the S-300 missiles could serve a role in defending Iranian nuclear sites, potentially affecting the ability of foreign countries to carry out surgical strikes against Iranian targets if deemed necessary.[57] Russian arms sales to Iran constitute a small fraction of Russia's total arms exports—about two percent in monetary terms since 2002.[58]

The Russian-Iran relationship extends beyond the arms trade to political cooperation. Russia and Iran are associated through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian intergovernmental organization. The SCO summit in 2005, which asked the United States to determine the time of withdrawal of U.S. bases in Central Asia, witnessed the inclusion of Iran into the SCO as an observer state. Russia supported Iran's initial inclusion as an observer state into the SCO, which is an intergovernmental organization intended to foster cooperation and mutual security among its members—China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Following the SCO's request for a U.S. timetable for withdrawal from Central Asia, Iran announced its intentions to join the SCO as a full member. By joining the SCO, Tehran would gain some measure of protection against threats from the United States as well as official and legitimate partners, notably Russia and China.[59] As of April 2010, the organization has not yet admitted Iran as a full member. Neither Russia nor China likely wanted to grant admission to a state with potential future conflicts with the United States and both probably anticipated Iranian efforts to create decisive splits between the Western states on one side and Russia and China on the other.[60]

At present, Iran holds enormous proven oil and natural gas reserves and is a major exporter of crude oil. Iran is second only to Russia in the size of its known reserves of natural gas; however, two-thirds of these reserves remain undeveloped.[61] Despite its wealth of natural gas, the lack of production capacity requires Iran to import natural gas from neighboring Turkmenistan.[62] A resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, followed by a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement and the easing of U.S. sanctions, could spark greater investment in the Iranian oil and gas sectors. Such investments would lead, in turn, to increased supply and lower prices for those resources—a blow to Moscow's revenue stream and the Russian economy. Further, increased access to Iranian oil and gas would reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia, reducing Moscow's influence in European capitals.

Moscow would also like to avoid any Iranian interference in Moscow's restive Northern Caucasus regions, such as Chechnya and Ingushetia, a point made by the president of the Russian Near East Institute, Yevgeniy Satanovskiy in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta on February 16, 2010. "For now Iran is stirring up the Persian Gulf zone, the Maghreb countries, and the Eastern Mediterranean, but is not touching our Northern Caucasus," Satanovskiy said.[63] Although an avowedly Islamic state, Iran did not support Chechen rebels seeking independence during the conflicts in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s. Tehran deemed the Chechen issue to be an internal affair of the Russian Federation; Moscow certainly did not overlook Iran's withholding of support for Chechnya's Muslim rebels in attempting to moderate UN sanctions on Tehran.[64]

Can the United States Influence Russia to Support Tougher Sanctions?

The incentives the United States can offer Russia in exchange for support for strong sanctions against Iran remain limited by geopolitics. The United States, separated from Iran by half the globe and 30 years of diplomatic isolation, is far more willing to contemplate painful sanctions on Iran than is Russia, for whom Iran is a neighbor. Russia must balance its desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons with its desire to contain U.S. influence in the Middle East and cooperate with Tehran in other spheres. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made this point in an interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy on February 19, 2010:

    But Iran is for us, unlike the U.S., a close neighbor, a country with which we have a very long, historically based connection. It is a country with which we cooperate in the economic, humanitarian, and military-technical fields. And in particular, it is a country which is our partner in the Caspian Sea, along with three other Caspian littoral states. Therefore, we are not indifferent to what happens in Iran and around it. This applies to our economic interests and in the security sphere. And this applies… to the task of the early settlement of the legal status of the Caspian Sea…in the approaches to which the Iranian and Russian positions are fairly close.[65]

Given the tension between the interests of a distant United States and a proximate Russia with regard to Iran, the best way for a U.S. administration to win Russian cooperation on a sanctions resolution is to remove irritants from the U.S.-Russian relationship and allow Iran's own behavior to influence Moscow.

One potential subject that might prove useful for ameliorating the tense disagreements over the Iran issue, however, is the stalled U.S.-Russian Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation, also known as a 123 Agreement, because the requirements for such agreements are set forth in Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act. The Bush administration withdrew the agreement from Congress, where it was awaiting approval, following the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.[66] The 123 Agreement would have enabled increased cooperation in scientific research and development pertaining to the nuclear power sector, controlled thermonuclear fusion, as well as nuclear industry and commerce. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the agreement could further:

    …provide Russia with access to U.S. nuclear technologies and markets, the right to receive U.S.-origin nuclear materials into Russia for storage or processing, and an improved international image for its nuclear industry. The agreement might also be construed as U.S. approval for Russia's civilian nuclear industry, thereby enabling Moscow to conclude similar agreements with other countries.[67]

The storage and processing of U.S.-origin spent fuel taken from countries such as South Korea and Taiwan is a potentially lucrative business: Russia has estimated that it could earn as much as $20 billion from performing that service.[68]

Although the agreement may not directly influence the Russian position on Iran, approval could also bolster U.S.-Russian cooperation in the future by improving the political atmosphere and easing discussion of the Iranian issue. In a June 12, 2008 testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Robert Einhorn, then of the Center for International and Strategic Studies and currently a special advisor to the State Department on nonproliferation issues, said that "…a 123 Agreement can allow United States firms to…team up with Russian companies in joint ventures to develop and market nuclear reactors and other nuclear products in third world countries."[69] It would also establish the necessary legal foundation for Russia to establish an international spent fuel storage facility housing United States-origin spent fuel.[70] As Einhorn further noted, the 123 Agreement offered greater leverage for the United States to influence Russia because it would give the "Russians a tangible, vested interest in continuing to cooperate with the United States."[71]

The Obama administration could resubmit the agreement to Congress if Russia takes a harder line with Iran. Of course, Congress does not faithfully follow any administration's guidelines, and may tack extra requirements on to the agreement, as it attempted to do while considering the agreement in 2008.[72]


Using the past sanctions resolutions as a guide, along with statements from Russian leaders, it is clear that to meet with Moscow's approval, any sanctions resolution must:

  1. Permit the flow of supplies, equipment, and work to continue on the Bushehr reactor project,
  2. Permit Russia's arms trade with Iran, and
  3. Not create unrest among the population of Iran or destabilize the Iranian government.

Of these, item 3 is the most challenging because it is ambiguous and hard to quantify. Items 1 and 2 represent protect Moscow's investments, but could be sacrificed without jeopardizing the security of the state. As a result, sanctions that contravene these provisions are conceivable should relations with Iran deteriorate even more severely. Item 3 does have a security dimension, and so Russia is likely to hold to this principle more closely than to the others.

Given these restrictions in the current climate, any sanctions resolution must be limited to financial restrictions on banks, firms, and individuals, and travel restrictions on Iranian elites. The most painful sanctions—a ban on arms sales to Iran, restrictions on gasoline and petroleum imports and/or exports, and so on—are unlikely to meet with Russia's approval.

While the United States and Russia can take steps to improve their relationship generally, the United States can do relatively little to pressure or cajole Russia into supporting tougher sanctions on Iran directly. Russia's interests in Iran and the Caspian region are complex, and there is a tension between Moscow's desire to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran and its desire to have positive relations with its neighbor. Russia's patience has only begun to fray following Iran's rejection of two separate "escape routes" offered by Russia—the international enrichment center at Angarsk, and the offer to enrich Iran's LEU in Russia for use in the Tehran Research Reactor. It is Iran's behavior, rather than international pressure, that is most influencing the Russian position.


  • Iran Watch, Wisconsin Project,
  • factsheet on Iranian nuclear program,
  • Nuclear Threat Initiative Country Profile: Iran
  • IAEA and Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency,
  • Nuclear Iran, Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS),
  • Iran, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR),
  • IranTracker, American Enterprise Institute (AEI),
  • President of Russia,
  • Official Website of the Government of the Russian Federation,


[1] Resolution 1696, UN Security Council, July 31, 2006,
[2] "U.N. Powers Continue Iran Talks," Global Security Newswire, July 20, 2006,
[3] Ibid.
[4] For more information regarding the specific details of the P5+1 incentives proposal, please refer to the full text,
[5] Resolution 1737, UN Security Council, December 23, 2006, See also for further details on the individuals and entities subject to asset freezing.
[6] Paul Kerr, "Security Council Deadlocks on Iran," Arms Control Today, December 2006,
[7] Elissa Gootman, "U.N. Postpones Vote on Penalties for Iran," The New York Times, December 22, 2006,
[8] Resolution 1747, UN Security Council, March 24, 2007,
[9] "Security Council toughens sanctions against Iran, adds arms embargo, with unanimous adoption of resolution 1747 (2007)," United Nations Department of Public Information, March 24, 2007,
[10] Nicolas Kulish, "Agreement on Proposal for New Iran Sanctions," The New York Times, January 23, 2008,
[11] Ariel Cohen, "The Real World: Iran's Space Rocket Launch," The Middle East Times, February 9, 2008,
[12] Ibid.
[13] "Russia criticises Iran's defiance," BBC News, February 13, 2008,
[14] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), and 1803 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," IAEA Board of Governors, Report by the Director-General, September 15, 2008,
[15] "New U.N. Resolution on Iran," VOANews, October 6, 2008,
[16] Jon Hovi, Robert Huseby, and Detlef Sprinz. "When Do (Imposed) Economic Sanctions Work?" World Politics, Vol. 57, No. 4, July 2005, pg. 485. See also Adrian U-Jin Ang and Dursun Peksen. "When Do Economic Sanctions Work? Asymmetric Perceptions, Issue Salience and Outcomes," Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, March 2007, pp. 135-145.
[17] Marc Champion and Jay Solomon, "Russia says no to Iran nuclear sanctions," Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2009.
[18] "Joint News Conference with US President Barack Obama," April 8, 2009,
[19] Nikolai Sokov, "Russia Begins to Implement Initiative on International Uranium Enrichment Centers," WMD Insights, December 2006/January 2007 Issue,
[20] Kim Ghattas, "A Russian Policy Shift on Iran?" BBC News, October 13, 2009, Laura Perez Maestro, "Iran rejects key part of nuclear deal," CNN, November 18, 2008,
[21] "Iran's letter to the IAEA says ready for simultaneous fuel swap within territory," Xinhua, February 24, 2010,
[22] Ellen Barry, "Medvedev says Russia may back sanctions on Iran if deal falls apart," New York Times, November 7, 2009.
[23] "Russia, China back U.S. on Iran resolution," United Press International, November 27, 2009.
[24] Steve Gutterman, "Russia says can't wait forever on Iran nuclear issue," Reuters, January 27, 2010.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Alan Cowell and Thom Shanker, "Iran Is Said to Begin Nuclear Enrichment," The New York Times, February 9, 2010, "Medvedev confirms RF considers Iran-IAEA closer coop necessary," ITAR-TASS, February 16, 2010,
[27] "Medvedev confirms RF considers Iran-IAEA closer coop necessary," ITAR-TASS, February 16, 2010,
[28] George Jahn, "Three world powers criticize Iranian enrichment," The Washington Post, February 16, 2010,
[29] Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov Interview to RIA Novosti, Russia Today Television Channel and Voice of Russia Radio Station, February 25, 2010,
[30] "Western Powers Target Iranian Oil Exports," Global Security Newswire, February 16, 2010,
[31] Lachlan Carmichael "US asks Gulf to pressure Iran, sees changes in China," AFP, February 14, 2010
[32] Interview, under the rubric "Priorities," with Nikolay Platonovich Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, conducted by Boris Yamshanov and Ivan Yegorov; date and place not given: "A doctrine without aggression."
[33] Dmitri Medvedev, "New conference following Russian-French talks," March 1, 2010.
[34] "Banking Committee Approves Dodd-Shelby Iran Sanctions Bill," Iran Watch, October 29, 2009,
[35] "Israel pushes Moscow for Iran sanctions," Washington Times, February 15, 2010,
[36] Barak Ravid, "Russia tells Netanyahu it will hold off on Iran arms deal," Haaretz, February 22, 2010,
[37] Ibid.
[38] "Russia will supply S-300 missiles to Iran," The Times of India, February 24, 2010,
[39] See footnote 33.
[40] "Bushehr—Iran Special Weapons Facilities," Federation of American Scientists,
[41] Ibid.
[42] "Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant 'to open in 2010,'" BBC News, January 21, 2010,
[43] Nikolai Sokov, "Russia Announces Deadline for Completing Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, As Security Council Weighs Sanctions on Iran," WMD Insights, December 2006/January 2007,
[44] "Bushehr I and II Nuclear, Iran,",
[45] Paul Kerr, "Russia, Iran Sign Deal to Fuel Bushehr Reactor," Arms Control Today, November 2006,
[46] "Russia delivers nuclear fuel to Iran," CNN, December 17, 2007,
[47] "Facilities under Agency safeguards or containing safeguarded material on 31 December 2008," International Atomic Energy Agency,
[48] "Report: Russia Completes Shipment of Uranium to Iran," Associated Press, January 28, 2008,
[49] "Bushehr nuclear plant operational by 2008," United Press International, December 20, 2007,
[50] "International Experts Conclude IAEA Peer Review of Iran's Safety Regulation at Bushehr NNP," International Atomic Energy Agency, Press Release, March 2, 2010,
[51] "CIA—the World Factbook — Russia," World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency,
[52] Steven Eke, "Iran buys Russian passenger jets," BBC News, August 22, 2007,
[53] This information is compiled from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database on international arms transfers,
[54] Dmitri Solovyov, "Russian arms trader plays down Iran missile sale threat," Reuters, January 28, 2010,
[55] "Russia Selling Iran Sophisticated New Air Defense System," Fox News, December 2, 2007,
[56] "No reason to stall Iran missiles deal, Moscow says," Reuters, February 14, 2010,
[57] "Russia blows hot and cold over Iran S-300s," United Press International, February 15, 2010,
[58] This information is compiled from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database on international arms transfers,
[59] Farangis Najibullah, "Iran: Russia, China Unlikely to Welcome Tehran into SCO," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 20, 2008,
[60] Ibid.
[61] "Iran Energy Data, Statistics and Analysis—Iran, Natural Gas," U.S. Energy Information Administration,
[62] Ibid.
[63] Andrei Terekhov, "United States and Israel Draw Russia into Iranian Gambit," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 16, 2010, in Russian, Translation by Cole Harvey.
[64] Clement Therme, "Tehran and the Chechen Question," Caucaz, September 26, 2006,
[65] Interview with Sergei Lavrov on Ekho Moskvy, February 20, 2010. Transcript in Russian, Translated by Cole Harvey.
[66] Mary Beth Nikitin, "U.S.-Russian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: Issues for Congress," Congressional Research Service, September 9, 2008. Page 2,
[67] Ibid. Page 4.
[68] Miles A. Pomper, "Bush, Putin to Seek Nuclear Cooperation Pact," Arms Control Today, September 2006,
[69] U.S. House of Representatives, "Russia, Iran, and Nuclear Weapons: Implications of the Proposed U.S.-Russia Agreement," Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, June 12, 2008,
[70] Ibid.
[71] Ibid.
[72] Ibid. Page 1.

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Eric Brewer on the War in Ukraine and Nonproliferation
nuclear symbol with no symbol circle with line through it


Eric Brewer on the War in Ukraine and Nonproliferation

Deputy Vice President for NTI’s Nuclear Materials Security Program Eric Brewer writes that “although Russia’s war [in Ukraine] has created nuclear risks, the risk that it will unleash a wave of nuclear proliferation is lower than many believe.”


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