Russia faces important strategic setbacks if the Iran nuclear issue is referred to the UN Security Council and will fight behind the scenes to prevent this, despite public comments suggesting Moscow was moving closer to the West on the issue, experts say.
In addition to its high commercial stakes in Iran, Russia is also striving to retain its footing in the volatile Caucasus and Central Asian regions which could be upset dramatically and quickly if relations with Tehran soured, as they would if Moscow joined the West in a UN referral for Iran.
"The main goal of Russian diplomacy at present is to prevent the Iran issue from going to the UN Security Council," said Vladimir Yevseyev, coordinator of the nuclear non-proliferation program at the Carnegie Moscow Center political research institute.
"Russia does not want to lose Iran. Russia will do whatever possible to stop this decision," he said.
Confident assertions by European and US diplomats that Russia has dropped its long-standing resistance to referring Iran to the Security Council are ill-informed and reflect a misreading of the Russian political mix predicating Moscow's policy on the issue, experts say.
Moscow's continued reticence about referring Iran to the UN Security Council was underscored on Tuesday by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that sanctions were "not the best and by no means the only way" to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff.
In addition to payments reportedly in excess of US$1 billion that Russian state and private firms will receive under contracts to help Iran build and launch its first civilian nuclear power station, Moscow is determined to nurture its long-term business and economic interests in Iran.
Chances for doing so would disintegrate quickly and permanently if Russia were to walk away from Iran now, the experts explain.
"In attempting to curb Iran's nuclear program, Western countries are also deciding another issue: the removal of Russia from Iran's lucrative energy market," said Radzhab Safarov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Iranian Research and an adviser to the Russian State Duma.
"Construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant is not only economically profitable for Moscow -- it also strengthens its long-term influence in Iran, a key country in the Islamic world and a strategic partner for Russia," Safarov said in an interview with the daily Vremya.
"It is not hard to imagine how Tehran will react, and what will happen to Russia's image, if, in this difficult period for Iran, it sides with the West and votes for sanctions," he said.
Referral of the Iran nuclear issue to the UN Security Council represents a no-win situation for Russia as this could lead to a vote on sanctions against Tehran, forcing Moscow into a stark choice between staying friendly with the West or protecting its many other interests linked to Iran.
For Moscow, that choice is by no means the "no brainer" that some Western officials seem to think it should be, as the Kremlin sees, in its relationship with Tehran, direct links to stability on Russia's southern flanks in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
For instance: Iran, around one-third of whose population is of ethnic Azeri origin, has de facto influence on stability in the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which in turn plays an important stabilizing role in the wider Caucasus region, including inside southern Russia itself.