The Buzz

Iran, Russia, and the Ukrainian Crisis

The Ukrainian crisis poses a threat to cooperation between Russia and the West on many issues of international security and, above all, to the dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program. The dialogue with Iran is led by the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany) with the goal of preventing Iran from creating an atomic bomb. In November 2013, thanks to the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, these negotiations achieved their first success:  an interim agreement called the “Joint Action Plan.” The parties are scheduled to complete work on and then sign a comprehensive agreement in July 2014.

The crisis in and around Ukraine, in which Western sanctions have already been applied against Russia and relations between Russia and the West have started to resemble the Cold War, could seriously complicate further negotiations. There remain in Iran influential political groups and organizations that aim to reach the “nuclear threshold” and continue to advance toward this goal, using any conflicts between the countries of the P5+1 to their advantage.

Dilemmas of Russian policy

Russia is undoubtedly against Iran developing nuclear weapons. Russia is also not a supporter of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, as it wants to sell Iran its own nuclear fuel for Iran’s Russian-built nuclear power plants (one reactor was put into operation at the Bushehr power plant, and a minimum of two more, and in the long term up to eight, reactors are planned). In 2006-2010, Russia voted in favor of six UN Security Council resolutions (including four with economic sanctions) designed to punish Tehran for continuing its nuclear program.

However, Moscow has never officially shared opinions about the military nature of the Iranian nuclear program and always prioritized diplomacy rather than economic sanctions or, especially, military force for resolving this issue. During the last several years, Moscow as aimed to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the United States, convincing Washington that it could incline Tehran to make concessions. This was one of the Russian political “trump cards” in relations with the West. However, in actuality, Iranian concessions came as a result of the election of a new president under conditions of economic crisis created by the oil embargo and financial sanctions of the United States and Europe.

During all the previous years, the Iranian issue was the subject of an intense struggle within Russia between enemies of the West, supporters of traditional ties with Iran and other Asian neighbors, and advocates of cooperation with the U.S. and strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime.  It is clear that, due to the Ukrainian crisis, the position of the latter group has weakened significantly.

Today the fundamental dilemma of Moscow’s policy lies in whether it is worth cooperating to achieve a comprehensive agreement with Iran under conditions of confrontation with the West over Ukraine. After all, such an agreement would primarily be a success for the United States and its allies’ policies, and would improve their relations with Tehran and sharply increase their influence in the Near and Middle East. In the course of a new Iranian president and in public sentiments, after over thirty years of isolation, pro-American attitudes and hopes for wide cooperation with the West are growing (according to a poll from September-October 2013, 80-90% of Iranians consider the reestablishment of relations with the United States necessary).

Furthermore, the removal of sanctions against Iran and the appearance of Iranian oil and gas in the world market would lead to a decrease in hydrocarbon prices or, at a minimum, would create serious competition for Russia. And hydrocarbons are Russia’s main export product, the fundamental source of its budget income, and the most important instrument of its foreign policy, including during the Ukrainian crisis.

On the other hand, the breakdown of negotiations with Iran would even more severely strain relations between Russia and the West, and would likely lead to a new war in the Persian Gulf—with extremely destructive economic and political consequences for the region and the entire world, including Russia. And, apart from the threat of war, the continuation of sanctions against Tehran harms Russian economic interests in Iran. Finally, the negotiations’ failure would not bring back Russia’s political “trump card” of a special relationship with Iran.

Historical background of relations

One must not forget that relations between Russia and Iran are much wider than the question of Iran’s nuclear program and have several hundred years of history.  Iran is the main state in the extremely unstable region neighboring Russia. Tehran has significant influence over events in the Near and Middle East, the South Caucasus, and Central and South Asia (including Afghanistan). Developments in this wide zone directly affect Russian national security, for which Islamic radicalism and terrorism remain a top threat. Additionally, Iran is a country with a largely young population of 80 million people, significant potential for economic development, and enormous reserves of oil and gas.

Shia Iran is regarded in Russia as the only counterbalance in the region to the increasing influence of the United States, Turkey, and Sunni extremism (Wahhabism and Salafism), which is particularly active in the Russian North Caucasus and in neighboring Central Asia. The unprecedented current tension in relations between Russia and the U.S./NATO has made the value of Iran as a partner even greater in Moscow’s eyes.

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