Since Russia's resurgence in August, Iran has had the option to cozy up to Moscow and use that relationship as leverage in talks with the West.
However, the West could offer Tehran accommodations and an energy relationship. Iran will have to decide which option serves its interests best.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow on Sept. 12 to discuss the upcoming completion of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. The plant has been scheduled for completion for a long time; the latest startup date given by Russia's Atomstroiexport, which is working on the project, is February 2009.
Russia's resurgence and subsequent confrontation with the West over the intervention in Georgia has given Tehran a new card to play in talks with the United States. Iran now has the option of using Russia's renewed belligerence toward the West to get the nuclear technology and weapons it actively seeks. However, the geopolitics of Iran create barriers to a full-fledged alliance with Russia.
Tehran therefore really has two options:
a close relationship with Moscow or an accommodation with the United States that is further entrenched by an energy relationship with Europe. Either way, Tehran will have to decide which serves its interests best.
Iran's geography and demographics determine its geopolitical imperatives. It is a multiethnic country (with significant Kurdish, Arab, Azeri, Baluchi, Lurs and Turkmen minorities) with a considerable Sunni minority but dominated by a Persian Shiite majority. Iran's key geopolitical imperative is to secure its borders and prevent a foreign power from inciting internal challenges to the ruling regime or disunity between various ethnic groups.
The key mountainous borders to the north and the west serve to check potential influence from Russia and Turkey -- the two main regional powers Iran historically has been most concerned with. Iran also has an interest in controlling the Shatt al-Arab, the swampy confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that separates Iran from its Arab neighbors in Mesopotamia and the Gulf.
Russia wants to keep the United States involved in the Middle East as long as possible -- thus allowing Moscow sufficient time to "play" in Europe and the Caucasus -- and supporting a belligerent Iran is key to that strategy.
However, Moscow has never fully committed to Tehran, in part because the two are natural competitors in the region. Russia has, however, lent Iran support in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Moscow has promised for years to finish. Russia has also given Iran political backing, blocking anything but minimal sanctions at the U.N. Security Council and offering potential weapon sales. Now that Russia and the United States are facing off again, however, Moscow is looking to use Iran actively against Washington. Russia will still hope that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, but it may ultimately decide that a nuclear-armed Iran -- or an Iran on the path to nuclear armament -- is worth the "window of opportunity" created by the United States' being tied down in the Middle East.
However, even if Bushehr were completed, Tehran has no guarantees that it can trust Russia. The two have competing interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia -- border regions that both Tehran and Moscow must secure, and areas where Iran has many ethnic links (Ossetians, as an example, are of Iranian lineage, as are the Tajiks). Furthermore, it is unclear what Russia can offer Iran other than weapons. It is difficult to build a dependable bilateral relationship purely on weapon sales, particularly when there is obvious geopolitical rivalry already built in. The alliance would be one with essentially no insurance policy for Tehran. Russia could discard Iran with very little direct negative consequences for its own interests.
The United States and Iran are not natural competitors like Russia and Iran. The United States and Iran do have opposing geopolitical interests -- particularly due to the American support of Saudi Arabia -- but Iran was one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East prior to the 1979 Revolution, illustrating that the opposing interests are not as "built-in" as the regional rivalry between Tehran and Moscow. Washington needs Tehran's cooperation in stabilizing Iraq and the rest of the region by restoring a Sunni-Shia balance of power, thereby allowing the United States to extricate itself from the region and focus on larger threats in Eurasia. Iran, on the other hand, wants a guarantee from the United States that no new Arab threat would arise from Iraq or anywhere else. Obviously, Iran also needs a
guarantee that the United States will not attack it directly. Furthermore, as with Russia, Tehran simply has no real assurance that it can trust the United States.
Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas is considerable. Countries in Central Europe, such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany and Austria, are extremely dependent on Russian natural gas imports, as is Turkey. Germany receives 43 percent of all the natural gas it consumes from Russia; Turkey receives 66 percent of its natural gas from Russia. At the moment, the Soviet infrastructure links the Russian Tyumen, Timan-Pechora and Ob Basin fields with European consumers, as well as the natural gas fields in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Iran holds the world's second-largest natural gas deposits and -- in theory -- would be able to satisfy Europe's energy needs. However, Iran needs massive investment from Europe to both develop its fields -- particularly the massive South Pars field in the Persian Gulf -- and build the infrastructure on what would be a "Soviet" scale to transport the natural gas all the way to consumers in Central Europe. Essentially, Iran would have to be able to match -- or come close to -- the Russian exports to Europe which stood at nearly 150 billion cubic meters in 2007. Currently, Iran produces only around half of that and is a net importer of natural gas because its fields are underdeveloped and all production is used up by domestic consumption. The increase in production would therefore have to be threefold for Iran to be able to both satisfy domestic consumption and replace Russia as Europe's natural gas exporter.
To reach the consumers in Europe, Iran would have to first develop domestic infrastructure that would take the natural gas from its South Pars field in the Persian Gulf up to the border with Turkey. From there, a completely new infrastructure would need to be developed to take the gas to Europe, since the current Turkish infrastructure would not be able to pump enough gas. The Iran-Turkey-Balkans-Europe pipeline system would be the longest export pipeline in the world and likely the most expensive energy project ever.
Europe, and particularly the natural gas-dependent capitals of Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, Sofia, Rome, Budapest, Vienna and Ankara, would be a powerful lobby in Washington to make sure that the United States does not flip on Iran. This would be the insurance policy for an accommodation with the United States that Tehran could depend on. Of course, for it to become possible, Iran first has to make progress with its negotiations with the United States and then has to sell what would be the most expensive energy project in the world to the Europeans. With the Russians resurgent and threatening anew, Europe might just go for it.