Worries over the possibility of Iranian support for radical separatism in Russia’s turbulent “Southern Rim” were at the core of Russian-Iranian contacts a decade ago. Back then, Moscow moved quickly—and successfully—to secure Tehran’s good behavior in exchange for arms and nuclear assistance. But the Russo-Iranian understanding over the “post-Soviet space” could soon become a thing of the past.
For one thing, telltale signs indicate that Iran is expanding its involvement in the spread of radical Islam in the region. In the first part of 2002, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) uncovered new intelligence indicating that elements of Iran’s clerical army, the Pasdaran, were secretly providing training and logistical support for insurgents from the radical al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Iran is likewise suspected of sponsoring the rise of radical religious and separatist movements in neighboring Azerbaijan over the past several years, and of using them as a means to destabilize and pressure the Aliyev dynasty in Baku. This troublemaking has led Russian media outlets to openly question the prudence of continued strategic alignment with Iran.
For another, Iran remains a serious potential threat to stability in the Caucasus. Officials in Moscow understand full well that, despite Iran’s historic abstention from sponsoring separatism in the “post-Soviet space,” Tehran in the future could use support for Chechen insurgents (or other regional radicals) as a blackmail tool against Moscow if it feels threatened by Russia’s strides toward the West, or as a means to blunt international pressure over its nuclear program. Indeed, signs of such activity are already becoming visible; in a November 2005 exposé, London’s influential Sunday Telegraph reported that the Pasdaran has begun “secretly training Chechen rebels in sophisticated terror techniques to enable them to carry out more effective attacks against Russian forces.” [...]
Can the strategic partnership between Russia and Iran be severed? So far, the United States has not seriously tested this proposition. Instead, for much of the past decade, it has contented itself with superficial (and ultimately self-defeating) discussions with the Kremlin about just one aspect of the Russo-Iranian entente: Iran’s nuclear program. Today, policymakers in Washington should be thinking deeply about a broader sort of dialogue with their Russian counterparts over Iran.
Such a discourse would need to take into account Russia’s legitimate security interests in the “post-Soviet space.” Russia’s recent revival of imperial rhetoric vis-à-vis the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus—and its deepening involvement in regional security constructs like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—reflects a growing fear that America’s new strategic presence in the “post-Soviet space” could turn out to be a permanent affair. This sense of siege, moreover, has only deepened in the aftermath of the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, and the perceived American connection to these events. Nevertheless, Moscow and Washington share congruent interests on a number of regional security issues, from preventing the growth of radical Islam to combating the rising tide of narcotics flowing from Afghanistan. Whether formal or informal, a Russo-American security arrangement that addresses Moscow’s fears—and capitalizes on such commonalities—could help reduce Moscow’s perceived need for strategic partners such as Iran to counterbalance the United States.