The landmark deal struck in Geneva last week aiming to grant Iran sanctions relief is perhaps as much a victory for Tehran as it is for Moscow. Russia emerged as a strong voice in the P5+1 negotiations in favor of relaxing the sanctions and ultimately got what it wanted.
Despite a history of rivalry with Iran, Russia has a number of important mutual interests that shape Russia's pro-Iran policy.
Supporting Assad in Syria
Iran and Russia find themselves allies in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Both countries see Syria as their closest - if not only - Arab ally. Both countries also remain suspicious of Western intervention. Top Iranian leadership believes that a military intervention in Syria would be a "disaster" for the Middle East.
Russian Duma's foreign affairs committee chair Alexei Pushkov recently went further, when he reportedly said that if the U.S. considers military intervention in Syria, "I would consider it absolutely justified to [take] more serious measures, including increasing the supply of defensive weapons to Iran…"
Shared antipathy towards the Taliban
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Russia and Iran were among the main backers of the Northern Alliance and its fight against the Taliban. Their support for the Alliance is due in large part to the Taliban's trafficking of narcotics from Afghanistan that continues to impact Russia and Iran. Russia is both a transit country for and consumer of Afghan opium. Ninety percent of Russia's heroin comes from Afghanistan transited through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, 30 percent of those killed worldwide by Afghan heroin are Russians.
With the anticipated withdrawal of most coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014, concerns about Afghanistan's future may bolster Russian-Iranian cooperation. Neither Moscow nor Tehran wants the Taliban to rule Afghanistan. Although reports in recent years have noted a shift in Iran's position in favor of the Taliban, this support appears to be quite limited. Iran's objective is to empower the Taliban enough to undermine U.S. efforts, without overpowering the Kabul government.
Iran: Supporting the 'Eurasian Union'
Russian president Vladimir Putin aims to counterbalance the EU with the "Eurasian Union." In February 2013, the head of Iranian Atomic Energy spoke at a two-day seminar in Tehran on Iran's policy toward Eurasia where, according to Russian press reports, he described Iran's interest in joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union. With surprising candor, he spoke about Iran's ability to provide a useful role to Russia in developing and expanding "Eurasianism." Iran also remains influential over Muslim communities in Russia's so-called "near abroad." Iran, for example, brokered peace during Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s.
Using Iran as a bargaining chip
Russia also uses its relationship with Iran as a bargaining chip with the West. Viktor Simaknov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's counsellor for Israel and Palestine agreed to freeze exports of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran in 2010. In exchange, Washington abandoned missile defence plans in Europe, effectively throwing Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if the Iranian deal becomes implemented, it will eliminate the need for Europe-based missile defence— long a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.
Russia won't help pass tough sanctions
Although Russia has supported sanctions against Iran in the past, these decisions also reflected its self-interest. According to George Mason University professor, Mark Katz, the sanctions increased the demand for Russian oil. They also made Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan reliant on export routes through Russia while blocking the construction of pipelines in Iran. The deal struck in Geneva will likely keep Russia as the dominant oil trader in the region.
The Kremlin is not afraid to provide Iran with diplomatic cover either. In January 2012, Russia's Foreign Minister issued a statement declaring that Western concerns about Iran's nuclear programme are overblown. For its part, Tehran enthusiastically supported Putin's decision to return to the presidency for a third term, in May 2012. Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, Iran's ambassador to Russia said, "there is almost no other state such as Russia, which has so many common interests and common views with Iran."
As Western leaders search for a diplomatic solution to curtailing Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Moscow may be as much an obstacle as Iran itself.