On Friday, Russia drew the kind of fire from the Iranian President that he usually reserves for the worst of the kafirs in the United States. As reported today by Iran's Fars news agency, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his Russian counterpart had joined the show "written and directed by the United States." He also grouped Russia with other "liars and cowards" who questioned the intent of Iran's nuclear program.
The attack was aimed specifically at Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has positioned himself opposite Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on this issue. Medvedev's support for the new UN sanctions against Iran on June 9 served as a prelude to his adorable meeting with President Barack Obama two weeks later, when the two presidents shared an order of fries at Ray's Hell Burger outside Washington. Then on July 12 Medvedev became the first Russian leader to echo the West's insistence that Iran is close to building a bomb. Russia, he said a few days later, "could not be indifferent" to this.
But as Putin and his ministers have made clear, Russia is also not indifferent to angering the Islamic Republic. The two are historical allies and major trading partners, especially in the business of weapons, fuel and atomic energy. So in his rhetoric at least, Putin has kept up the appearance of loyalty.
The day before the U.N. Security Council voted on the sanctions, Putin met with Ahmadinejad in Istanbul and insisted that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. "I'm of the opinion that the resolution should not be unnecessary, should not put Iran's leadership or the Iranian people into difficulty," Putin said that day. It was nothing like the hugs and giggles Putin and Ahmadinejad shared in Tehran in 2007, but it was still a strong show of support.
Yet when it came time to vote the following day, Russia backed the sanctions, which have undoubtedly hurt both the leadership and the people of Iran. As a result, Putin's reputation took an unusually tough blow. He came away looking like either a weakling or a snake.
Since then, Russia's policy has tilted in the other direction as it tries to get Iran to forget about that whole sanctions thing and be friends again. On July 14, Putin's energy minister said Russia would continue selling fuel to Iran, a costly move, as it would violate the unilateral sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States. Russian fuel suppliers like Lukoil, which has thousands of gas stations in the US, including one a few miles from the White House, could thus be exposed to the US sanctions unless Obama issues a special waiver.
More worryingly for everyone involved, the head of Russia's arms trading monopoly said on July 15 that it might still sell Iran the S-300 missile system, which would immunize its nuclear program from any U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. Any decision to cancel this sale, the arms dealer said, could only be made by Medvedev.
All of this exemplifies the tag-team style of leadership that Putin and Medvedev have going. Medvedev has taken the role of the burger-eating, twitter-loving westernizer of the nation, while Putin provides the counter weight by remaining a hard-ass, skeptical of America's role in the world and friendly with the likes of Venezuela and Iran. None of this should be taken as proof of tensions between the two.
They have simply realized that, one, they need support and investment from the West to plug the leaks in Russia's economy, and two, Putin isn't the best man for that job. His reputation as an aggressive Russian nationalist (which works wonders for his popularity at home) has eroded his ability to make friends with the US and its closest allies. So Medvedev has stepped in (or been inserted) to do the job with his dopey, harmless-looking smile, and it seems to be working. American companies are signing on to the Russian Silicon Valley project, and just look at how neatly Medvedev and Obama made the whole spy scandal go away.
But the Iranian venom on Friday demonstrates that this duplicity will not always work. On some of the most important issues of global affairs, Russia will need to take sides, and unless it's friendship with the Americans starts paying serious dividends soon, it will be very reluctant to alienate its traditional allies any further.
Russia's weapons sales to Iran are alone worth about $500 million per year. And if Iran gets really annoyed, it can act as a spoiler for Russia in several ways. It can finance the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus; it can undercut Russia in the gas trade with Turkmenistan; and more broadly, it can begin acting as a rival to Russia's influence in Central Asia, where money talks, Islam is spreading, and old Soviet loyalties don't count for much anymore.
Iran, of course, is also deeply reliant on Russian fuel supplies, so it would not take lightly any move against the Kremlin. But as Ahmadinejad showed on Friday, it is ready to start bashing Russia for its perceived allegiance to the West, and Russia hates to be seen at home or abroad as an American stooge. It has gone along with the sanctions so far in exchange for a couple of concrete favors, most notably Obama's decision to pull the U.S. missile shield back away from Russia's border. But if that support is to continue, the U.S. will need to start dishing out more treats to keep Russia on its side against Iran.