By Richard Weitz and Alex Vatanka
Iran claims to have forced down a sophisticated U.S. spy drone on December 4. Nine days later, President Obama formally asked for its return, a request that was met with an official sneer from Tehran. Top Iranian military brass made clear that “spoils of war will not be sent back.”
The fate of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone has since become firmly entangled in the U.S.-Iranian propaganda struggle, but it has also led to a genuine debate about the usefulness of the drone’s sophisticated technology to Iran and Russia, her sometime ally.
The Russians would obviously like to get their hands on one of the U.S. government’s most sophisticated intelligence collection tools. Russian defense industries have had great difficulty in developing and producing unmanned vehicles as well as other complex weapons systems along the lines of the Mistral-class amphibious warfare ships that Russia is purchasing from France. Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force General Norton A. Schwartz said that “there is the potential for reverse engineering” if the drone comes into the possession of a “sophisticated adversary.”
But would Iran willy-nilly give Russia’s scientists access to the RQ-170? Not necessarily, and certainly not when considering the totality of the ups and downs in Moscow-Tehran relations in recent years. And if Iran does let the Russians do anything more than peek at the RQ-170, it would in effect admit that the drone’s technology is beyond the ability of their military scientists to fathom. That message would not tally with Iran’s self-declared mastery of the latest unmanned aerial technologies, as forcefully stated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a recent television interview. Still, the U.S. drone does have the clear potential to act as a catalyst for improvement in wavering Moscow-Tehran relations.
Those ties have historically been troubled, and have experienced new tensions in recent years. The Iranians have been greatly angered by Moscow’s support last summer for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, by the decision to cancel a contract for the purchase of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, and by the continued delays in Russian construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, now more than a decade overdue. And yet, thanks to its isolation, the Iranian regime can’t afford to walk away from Russia.
Meanwhile, although Moscow does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, it does not consider such a threat imminent or inevitable. The Kremlin’s main concern is that Iran’s nuclear and missile activities are driving NATO countries to support missile defense programs that Russians fear could eventually degrade their own nuclear deterrent. They also count on Iran’s continued restraint from supporting Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, and assistance in limiting American influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. They also want to keep their conflicts with Iran over access to the Caspian Sea’s natural resources manageable.
Conversely, Russia has economic and diplomatic interests in Iran’s continued alienation from the West. Russian firms benefit from the reluctance of Western companies to invest in Iran due to the numerous unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on its government for its nuclear activities, past support for terrorism, and polices toward Israel, Lebanon, and other countries in the region. These tensions preserve Russian firms as Iran’s major economic partners. In their absence, Iran’s economy would likely return to its pre-2000s focus on Western trade and direct investment.
Although Russia’s overall economic ties with Iran are relatively limited, its influential nuclear and defense sectors profit considerably from Iran’s dependence on Russian-made atomic technology and materiel. Meanwhile, Russian energy firms benefit from Iran’s difficulties in producing and selling oil and gas on international markets.
Furthermore, Russian diplomats need tolerable ties with Tehran to achieve their goal of positioning Moscow as a mediator between Iran and the West. They can leverage that position to induce NATO governments and Iran to offer Moscow concessions on a variety of issues. Russia might also want to work with Iran to address security threats in Afghanistan following the NATO pullout.
Iranian leaders welcome Russia’s occasional support. It is considered self-serving and far from unconditional, but still useful given Iran’s alienation from Europe and the United States. Yet influential Iranian political figures have repeatedly made it clear they do not trust Moscow. They fully appreciate that the Russians have an incentive to promote Iran’s permanent alienation from the West.
Under such circumstances, many voices in Tehran dismissed the notion that Iran should share the RQ-170 with Moscow. As one academic put it to the Iranian Diplomacy website, to give the drone to the Russians would be “childish” and devoid of any strategic sense. Instead, he suggested that Iran use the drone’s capture as an opportunity to initiate negotiations with Washington.
Such sentiments are plentiful in Tehran, but those who harbor any hope for direct negotiations between Iran and the United States are not in the driver’s seat at present. Most are associated with the reformist and centrist factions that have been largely sidelined from the decision-making process. The hardliners who are running the show naïvely believe that Russia can still turn into a steady partner. As recently as November, Tehran and Moscow signed a new agreement on “strategic cooperation,” and Russia’s ambassador to NATO is due to visit Iran in early January to discuss NATO’s global antimissile defense system.
Sharing the U.S. drone with Moscow could well be seen as expediting the illusive Iranian-Russian alliance. Such misplaced optimism, however, both reflects the acute sense of isolation that Iran’s leaders experience and their willingness to whitewash Russia’s long record of duplicity toward the Iranian nation.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. Alex Vatanka is a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
This article appeared at PBS Frontline Tehran Bureau and is reprinted with permission.