Following three decades of mutually hostile postures characterized by minimal communication and limited and sporadic cooperation, the United States and Iran may be about to reengage more constructively.

Such a development, while important for us, would be of even greater significance for the greater Middle East and beyond. Its impact on a variety of relationships, including that between the United States and Israel, and those between Israel and its neighbors, would be transformative and positive. But much must happen by way of careful and persistent diplomacy to get the various moving parts in place. As Washington proceeds to restructure what is probably the key relationship in the region — namely, that between itself and Iran — it would do well to consider how another country has approached its own relations with Iran, in good times and bad. That country is Russia.

John W. Parker, a State Department analyst who has devoted a lifetime to the study of the Soviet Union and its successor states, has written a work that offers valuable lessons for American policymakers as the U.S. seeks to engage the government of Iran. His recently published Persian Dreams: Moscow and Tehran Since the Fall of the Shah (Potomac Books) is a major contribution to our understanding of the contemporary relationship between Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The book provides insight into the Iranian psyche, Iranian politics, and how Iranian officials relate to the world beyond their country’s borders. It’s both broad in scope and dense with details of the diplomatic and other interactions that have shaped the Russian-Iranian relationship to the present day, and illustrates how a contentious relationship can exist at different apparently contradictory levels.

Wary Realists

Parker describes a calculating relationship characterized by mutual wariness and realistic expectations. Both Moscow and Tehran approach their relations with a sense of proportion, and an understanding that short-term advantages can easily be overwhelmed by longer-term changes and realities. For the most part, this is a relationship that proceeds in measured steps and is shaped by competing as well as shared interests and a variety of volatile external factors.

Parker elucidates the qualitative differences between the U.S.-Iran relationship and the centuries-old interactions of Russia and Iran, which by virtue of geography and history have been far more intimate and textured. But he also highlights some similarities.

As with the United States, Iran approaches Russia with a sense of historical grievance. Iranian resentment toward its near neighbor reaches back to early in the 19th century, when the Russian Empire began to encroach on previously Iranian-controlled lands in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It’s fed, for example, by Russia’s subsequent imposed dominion over the Caspian Sea, and by the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907, through which the two colonial partners formalized their spheres of influence in the north and south of Iran.

Likewise, Russia has memories of the 1829 murder by a Tehran mob of Russian ambassador and noted writer Alexander Griboyedov, the principal architect of the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchai, which added the khanates of Nakichevan and Yerevan to the Russian Empire. More recently, within days of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, Iranian mobs attacked the Soviet embassy in Tehran on several occasions, destroying the hall which commemorated the 1943 wartime summit among Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.

Given this past, both sides are careful not to overreach. They approach each other with the politeness and wariness that only proud neighbors can have with each other. The fundamental aim, Parker points out, isn’t to become good but just reasonable neighbors, aware of the imperative of keeping in close touch even at the lowest points in their relationship, and using their relations to increase leverage with other partners, such as the United States.

Playing for the Long-term

In the ’60s and ’70s, better relations with Moscow gave the Shah a freer hand in dealing with domestic opposition to his reforms. At the same time, they encouraged Washington to be even less restrained in its armaments and technical assistance to Iran.

In the ’80s, the Iran-Iraq War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan strained relations. The USSR worried that an Iranian victory might stimulate increased Iranian activity in Afghanistan and the Muslim parts of the Soviet Caucasus; and Iran resented Soviet arms sales to Iraq and Soviet participation in the 1987 Kuwaiti tanker protection program. Yet Iran wasn’t a major player in supporting anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and kept a low profile in that country after the Soviet withdrawal.

The Russians were relieved when the end of the Iran-Iraq War removed a major complicating factor in its relations with Iran. And the USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 letter to Gorbachev reiterating Iran’s interest in good-neighborly and reciprocal relations. As Iranian-Soviet relations improved, Iranian parliament speaker Akbhar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who visited Moscow in June 1989, defended dealing with the Soviet Union. He argued that Iran’s policies had not changed. Rather, Soviet policies had — as exemplified by the withdrawal from Afghanistan, diminished Soviet support for “leftist and Marxist trends” in Iran, and the beginning of greater religious freedom in the USSR.

Moscow moved cautiously, out of concern for a possible negative reaction from Washington and continuing worry about Islamic fundamentalism. But relations clearly were on the upswing when Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told Secretary of State James Baker that isolating Iran “would be the worst of all possible options” (in Baker’s book, The Politics of Diplomacy, 1996).

Multiple Tracks

The complex and confusing dealings between Moscow and Tehran in 1992, when they backed opposing sides in the Tajik civil war “yet nourished mutual interests on other issues,” according to Parker, illustrate the sides’ determination to cooperate wherever possible even while supporting different clients. As the U.S. began to deploy its “dual containment” policy, designed to further isolate Iran, and moved forward with NATO expansion, Moscow and Tehran found new reasons to cooperate more fully.

They worked jointly to bring the sides in Tajikistan to the negotiations table and end the civil war. Economic and technological cooperation increased, and in 1995 Moscow concluded a deal which included building a reactor at the civilian nuclear power station at Bushehr. Nonetheless, increased pressure from Washington on Moscow to discourage Iranian interest in a nuclear program with military applications, as well as Moscow’s own proliferation concerns, led Moscow to slow completion of the reactor and delivery of dual-use technology.

In 2002, Moscow and Iran finally agreed to the return of all spent fuel from Bushehr to Russia, and by the end of the year the sides seemed close to a deal. Then, says Parker, the news broke of “a vast nuclear enrichment complex under construction at Natanz,” and a year later it was revealed that Iran had been dealing as far back as 1987 with the network of nuclear black marketers led by A. Q. Khan of Pakistan. This marked the beginning of a deliberate slowdown in Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran.

As Parker points out, aside from importuning from Washington, Moscow had its own reasons to be troubled by Iranian nuclear proliferation and its increasing military potential. These concerns were heightened by the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, and Russia began to display a more critical attitude, suggesting “a desire to at least slow down [Iran’s] emergence into the nuclear club.” This tendency became more pronounced under President Vladimir Putin, who told the United States in 2002 that, despite Russia’s centuries-old tradition of good-neighborliness with Iran, Moscow had “full understanding with the United States” on the nonproliferation issue.

Of course, Russia needed the money from its arms sales and its cooperation on the Bushehr facility. It also wished to retain some influence over Iranian decisions. So, despite its concerns, it never entirely shut down its cooperation. But it did slow it down considerably, and continued to push for Iranian acceptance of a plan whereby spent fuel from the reactor would be returned to Russia. Citing the U.S. effort to justify its invasion of Iraq without final UN Security Council approval, the Russians also adopted a go-slow approach to American pressure to take the Iranian nuclear issue to the Security Council and then to apply UNSC sanctions on Iran over the program.


Russia’s policy of patient and persistent engagement produced results. Moscow continued to insist that Tehran return spent nuclear fuel to Russia, and that the Islamic Republic allow International Atomic Energy Agency overview of Iran’s nuclear program. In October 2003, Iran delivered what it called a full disclosure of its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and in December of the same year it signed the additional IAEA protocol providing for additional inspections. In fact, Parker thinks that Russian leverage probably contributed to Tehran’s 2003 decision to disband its nuclear weaponization program. It was only after Iran committed to re-suspend its conversion and enrichment activities that Russia finally signed, in February 2005, the fuel return agreement that the head of Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry (MinAtom) had declared was close to being finalized in December 2002.

In the face of Iranian backtracking and reversal on its voluntary pledge to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities as a confidence-building measure, Russia joined the other Security Council members in approving UNSC Resolution 1696 in the summer of 2006, which called on Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment-related activities or face sanctions. In December 2006 it supported Resolution 1737, which called for sanctions against Iran for not suspending its nuclear enrichment activities.

Russia also supported UNSC 1747 in March 2007 and UNSC 1803 in March 2008, both of which broadened Resolution 1737’s sanctions against Iran’s nuclear-related activities. However, in light of Iran’s cutting back on cooperation with the IAEA and its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, along with signs of U.S. willingness to engage more directly with Iran on nuclear and other issues, Russia and China have resisted more recent efforts to adopt additional Security Council sanctions on Iran.

An important fact for Russia, no doubt, was the release in early December 2007 of a portion of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which stated “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Unwilling to be outflanked by Washington, Moscow reacted quickly after President Barack Obama issued a video message to Iran on March 20 on the occasion of the Persian New Year, in which he offered to open a new chapter in relations with the Islamic Republic. The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said there is no proof that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. He urged the West to respect and reach out to Tehran, adding that the IAEA is best placed to monitor Iran’s activities and establish whether it might try to develop a weapon covertly under the guise of a civilian program.

New Directions?

It’s too early to make firm predictions regarding the future direction of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. But it’s clear that the new administration in Washington has embarked on a course correction focused more on engagement than on sanctions and hectoring. In response, influential Iranians — including speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, who suggested in February that, rather than boxing with Iran, the United States should “play chess” with it — are sending many signals that they are prepared to engage as equals.

Given Iran’s weight in the region, and its influence in key countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as with respect to the occupied Palestinian territories, constructive engagement with Iran could produce major dividends for both the U.S. and Iran as well as for our friends and allies in the region, including Israel. As we proceed, we will need to exercise both patience and persistence, keeping in mind the strong support across different sectors of Iranian society for a civilian nuclear program that would coincidentally bring the country closer to becoming a nuclear threshold state.

Benjamin Tua, a retired Foreign Service Officer, served in the USSR, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Russia and Israel. He currently is an independent analyst and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.