11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Road to Tehran Does Not Run Through Moscow

With Iran approaching what International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohammed ElBaradei calls "breakout capacity" in its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons, one of Washington's top priorities has been to gain Russian support for a new round of UN sanctions. Despite its own concerns about Iran's nuclear program, Russia continues to resist tougher sanctions. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov all but ruled out Russian support for further sanctions in the UN Security Council. Washington's long quest for Russian aid has failed, and the Obama Administration needs to shift its focus elsewhere while it still has time to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Unlike the US and its allies, checking Iran's nuclear ambitions is not a major priority for Russia. Moscow remains puzzled by what it sees as the American obsession with Iran, and while Russian leaders have said repeatedly - and sincerely - that they would rather Iran not develop a nuclear weapons capability, Russia is unwilling to pay a significant price to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Russian reticence stems from a number of sources. Given the West's reluctance to business with Tehran, Russian companies have found lucrative opportunities in Iran. Russo-Iranian trade has expanded rapidly, with turnover exceeding $3 billion last year, and slated to grow rapidly in the coming years. Much Russo-Iranian trade is in sectors considered strategically important by the Kremlin. Tehran is a major customer for Russia's defense industry, and Russian gas monopoly Gazprom is involved in developing Iran's vast South Pars gas field. Russia is also deeply involved in Iran's overt nuclear program, with firms connected to the Ministry of Atomic Energy building the reactor complex at Bushehr.

Despite their disagreements over Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, Russia and Iran have forged a close diplomatic partnership elsewhere. This partnership took root during the late 1990s, when Moscow and Tehran worked together closely to end the bloody civil war in Tajikistan. Previously, Russia accused Iran of training and supplying Islamist guerrillas from Russia's North Caucasus during the first war in Chechnya (1994-96), and of exporting Islamic radicalism to Russia's neighbors in Central Asia. By the time the second war in Chechnya began in 1999, the Russo-Iranian rapprochement was already underway, and Iranian intervention was not an issue.

Given Iran's capability to export its radical ideology and to organize terrorist attacks abroad, Russian strategists are well aware that adopting a more confrontational posture towards Tehran, as the United States is urging, could have serious consequences. After a lull of several years, Russia's North Caucasus region is once again suffering serious instability, including a spate of deadly suicide attacks in Dagestan and Ingushetia. Though this instability stems from poverty and misrule at home, the Kremlin is aware of the potential for Islamic extremists to profit from local grievances, as happened in Chechnya a decade ago. Moscow wants to ensure the Iranian mullahs have no reason to re-inject themselves into the troubles of the North Caucasus.

Russia also benefits from the tense relationship between Tehran and the West: because of Western sanctions, Tehran cannot sell its gas to the lucrative European market. Instead, Russia and Gazprom remain Europe's dominant suppliers.

Were Iran to break out of its international isolation, either by abandoning its weapons program or undergoing regime change, European governments and energy companies would rush to complete deals that would reduce their dependence on Moscow. The consortium behind the planned Nabucco gas pipeline, which would bring 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year to Europe while bypassing Russia, are already clamoring for permission to do a deal with Tehran. The Kremlin has little incentive to do anything that would undermine its ability to use gas supplies as leverage with their European customers.

It is unlikely the US will be able to convince Russia to take any meaningful steps against Iran (Washington has already all but conceded its strongest bargaining chip, the planned anti-ballistic missile system in eastern Europe that Moscow opposes).

At this point, continuing to seek agreement with Moscow merely drags out the process while the Iranian program moves forward. The US should stop emphasizing the need for Russian cooperation, focus on developing a common front with key allies in Europe and the Middle East, and continue offering to negotiate directly with Tehran. Though Russian help might be useful in the abstract, Washington will have to find ways to solve the Iranian nuclear problem on its own.