Even before he took the oath of office, US President Barack Obama indicated that he would explore ways to improve Iranian-American relations. How receptive Tehran will be to such an initiative remains unclear since the Iranians (as usual) are sending mixed signals on their desire to normalize relations. While it's difficult to say whether a US-Iranian rapprochement is likely, what is certain is that Moscow would not welcome any potential improvement in the relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Russian analysts worry that a US-Iranian rapprochement might prompt Washington and Tehran to actively work together against Moscow. Even if this did not occur, just partially improved Washington-Tehran ties could result in the US endorsement of Iranian participation in energy supply projects, such as the proposed construction of the Nabucco pipeline, that would damage Russia's current pipeline strangehold over Europe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Improved Iranian-American relations could also damage Russian commercial interests, especially if Washington eased existing economic sanctions on Iran. The relaxation or lifting of sanctions would mean increased competition for Russian enterprises -- not just with American corporations, but with other international firms that have limited their Iranian exposure for fear of damaging their ability to operate in the United States. Given all the difficulties it has had dealing with Russian firms, Tehran might well prefer to cooperate with American and European firms in a variety of spheres, including atomic energy, petroleum and armaments. At a minimum, Russian firms might have to offer better terms than they do at present in order to gain or even retain business in Iran.
If Iranian-American relations remain poor, by contrast, Moscow could reasonably hope to continue, or even increase its present level of cooperation with Iran. At the same time, Russia could encourage Washington to believe that it "needs Moscow" in order to contain Tehran's ambitions.
The problem for Moscow, though, is that if Washington and Tehran are determined to improve their relations, there may be little Russia can do to prevent this from happening. If, however, Iranian political elites are divided and ambivalent over the prospects of improving ties with the "Great Satan," there are some things Moscow could do to try to impede improvement in Iranian-American relations. In particular, Russia could take steps to smooth over existing differences between the Kremlin and Tehran.
First and foremost, Moscow might finally go ahead and sell the S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Tehran that the latter has long sought. The effects of such a sale, of course, could be far reaching. For one, an Iran in possession of S-300s would likely be less fearful of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, and thus more willing to say and do things (such as intensify its nuclear research; threaten Israel; and/or increase its assistance to Hamas, Hezbollah, and various groups in Iraq and elsewhere) that would make the pursuit of rapprochement with Iran politically difficult or even impossible for the Obama Administration.
Another concession that Moscow might make is hasten the completion of the long-stalled Bushehr nuclear reactor. Such action, like any potential sale of S-300s, would greatly upset the United States and Israel.
A third option -- realistic only if the Kremlin could get China in particular to agree--might be to grant Iran full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Iran's desire to cooperate with the United States might diminish significantly if Iranian leaders believed that they enjoyed protection, under an SCO security umbrella, against possible US or Israeli aggression.
Ironically, Moscow could also seek to discourage an Iranian-American dialogue by increasing its cooperation with Washington on the Iranian nuclear issue. Instead of working to soften Security Council resolutions against Iran, as it has been doing in recent months, the Kremlin might go along with the United States and European Union in imposing stricter sanctions. Moscow, if it did so, would probably be betting that a hardening UN Security Council line would cause a corresponding toughening of Tehran's position, rather than inducing Iran to compromise.
It is not yet clear, of course, whether Moscow will undertake any of these moves, or whether any of them could actually influence the course of Iranian-American relations; there may be, after all, sufficient differences between Washington and Tehran to prevent rapprochement between them without Moscow having to take any action.
What should be clear, though, is that Moscow has little interest in seeing a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. The Obama Administration, then, cannot expect any meaningful assistance from Moscow in any effort to improve Iranian-American relations.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.