The most important factor when considering if any power is behind a particular crises is who benefits most from it? This is more so if a certain power benefits from all outcomes. When analyzing the Iran crises it becomes clear that of all the powers involved, only one will benefit from all results, Russia. Russia derives economic and geopolitical benefits from Iran’s drive for nuclear technology no matter how it is resolved.
Economically, the Russians are earning a couple billion dollars a year selling nuclear technology and the weapons to protect it to Iran. This is not a significant sum for the Russian economy as a whole, but it is focused mostly in the depressed defense and nuclear sectors of Russia’s economy providing them with a vital boost. Even this is small potatoes compared to the amount of money Russia is making by the higher oil prices cause by Iran’s behavior. Russia is the second largest exporter of oil in the world so any disruptions would only further increase this windfall. The Russian government earns around $1.4 billion for every dollar oil prices are above their natural level. Currently it is estimated oil prices are over valued by $10-20 a barrel due to risk and speculation. This translates to $14-28 billion in extra revenue for Moscow (how much is due to Iran is of course unknown, though oil prices fluctuate up or down $2-5 depending on statements by Iran). Should things have to be resolved militarily and oil hits $100 a barrel, Moscow will be receiving almost $120 million a day in extra oil taxes. If things are settled diplomatically then Russia will continue selling billions in weapons and technology that the new regional power broker will need.
Russia also wins geopolitically regardless of the result. Right now Russia is reinforcing the fact that since the U.S. continues to go through the U.N. to fix problems, nothing can happen in the world without her. Should we have to go the military route then the Russians have killed 2 birds with one stone. We will have to expend further treasure and resources thereby reducing our ability to deal with other issues the Russians care about more, and we will have taken down a potential future threat to Russia. The downside for Russia is being viewed as not defending a client, but they have not done enough to be viewed as protecting Iran the way they did with Saddam. If things are “solved” diplomatically and Iran gets their nukes it is no major problem for Russia. Most importantly, we will have been shown to be impotent making it difficult for anyone around the world to trust us to stand up for them while the Russians will have displayed their ability to protect their clients that was ruined after the Iraq War. Although Iran would be free to become a threat to Russia, they would not be that serious since the regime would be indebted to Russia and Russia has no compunction about throwing nukes around in her own defense.
The next question after establishing that Russia is the only power with everything to gain and nothing to lose from the Iran crises is how are they driving it? The first manner is by selling the nuclear technology to Iran. Far better countries like Brazil spent decades trying and failed to develop a nuclear bomb before giving up. North Korea has spent who knows how long developing a bomb with unknown amounts of help from China and Russia and unknown success. Iran would scarcely have been much more successful by itself. After jump starting Iran’s nuclear program, the Russians next provided Iran with the means to credibly defend it against anyone except the U.S. and to raise the price for the U.S. considerably. They have sold Iran advanced anti-aircraft systems including possibly the S-300 to protect key sites, anti-ship missiles and diesel-electric submarines to allow for threats to the U.S. Navy and the straits of Hormuz, and licenses the RPG-7 to raise the price of any ground invasion. Despite the success of getting Russia to slow the sale of the S-300 to Iran, this is likely because the S-300 would largely prevent an Israeli attack and thus would cause Israel to strike soon. The longer it takes to resolve this crises the better for Russia. These weapons allow Iran to more safely develop a nuclear weapon since the U.S. must take into consideration the much higher price in lives, aircraft, and money to stop Iran; maybe to the point of preventing any action at all. Further encouraging Iran’s behavior, the Russians are using their U.N. Security Council veto to lead the Iranians into believing that since the U.N. can be trusted not to stop them, the U.S. won’t either (this was the same reason Saddam believed he could again get away with his shenanigans in 2002/03). They then play a key role in the diplomatic activity to make it appear as though they are willing to see the issue resolved keeping eyes averted from their own role in creating the crises. All in all, a brilliant move by Putin that we show no inclination of paying the price to stop.