It would be tempting to view yesterday's meeting between Presidents Putin of Russia and Ahmadinejad of Iran as the beginning of a new "axis of oil"--two petro-authoritarians forging solidarity against the West. Mr. Putin's remarks in support of Iran's nuclear program were hardly helpful to the cause of inducing Iran to become more transparent about its efforts. But while high oil prices have enabled both of their countries to pursue much more ambitious agendas than would otherwise have been possible, I see a different interpretation of Mr. Putin's comments and handshake with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Russian interests in the region go back a long way, and the reestablishment of a "sphere of interest" seems entirely compatible with Putin's view of Russia's rightful position in the world order, and his own role within Russia.
The fact that the encounter between the two leaders took place against the backdrop of a regional summit of the countries bordering the Caspian is significant. The purpose of the gathering was to assert that the only countries that ought to determine the disposition of the Caspian's resources and its infrastructure (think pipelines) are those bordering it. That boils down to Iran plus the states of the former Soviet Union, and explicitly excludes the US and EU. If this were merely a question of sovereignty, no one could argue with it. However, this sort of exclusionary approach pre-dates the "near abroad" view of the USSR and hearkens back to the "spheres of influence" theory prevalent in late tsarist Russia, which sparred with the British Empire across this geography for generations in the "Great Game" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps President Putin believes he's engaged in a Great Game II with the US.
It's not surprising that Mr. Putin would pursue such a policy, since his own ambitions seem to mirror those of his pre- and post-Revolutionary predecessors. As described in a recent article in the Economist, the two-term limit on the Russian Presidency probably won't constrain Putin's ability to retain power, via a clever switch to an elevated office of the Prime Minister. If he can pull this off, with the help of a 70% approval rating, Vladimir Putin could easily rule Russia for decades, since he just turned 55. And like the tsars, he can afford to think long-term about expanding Russian influence and reducing that of the US across Central Asia and the Middle East. In that respect, at least, he finds common ground with Iran.
While President Ahmadinejad didn't secure a promise from Russia to fuel the nearly-complete nuclear reactor at Bushehr, Putin's vague warning about any military action against Iran will embolden Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear enrichment capability that I continue to believe only makes sense in the context of a nuclear weapons program, whether current or aspirational. That development wouldn't be in Russia's interests any more than it would be in ours. Let's hope that Mr. Putin sees all this clearly, rather than regarding Iran as simply a convenient foil against the US, or worse, as a potential client state willing to do his bidding. That would make it much harder to employ a strategy of deterrence against a future nuclear-armed Iran, while paradoxically increasing the incentive for us to act against that eventuality now, before Russo-Iranian friendship turns into an alliance.