“Iran's Nuclear Case” Card in Russia-West Confrontation

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russia Affairs

The geopolitical conflict and zero-sum game, which is going on between Russia and the West in Ukraine and has become more profound following the reunion of the Crimea Peninsula with Russia, should be considered as just another “juncture” in the unceasing rivalry over power in the international arena. The current faceoff will finally determine the new balance of power as well as political and security arrangements in Eastern Europe and among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), while on the other hand, determining the future position of Russia, Europe and the United States in new regional arrangements. Although this “temporary confrontation” will be sooner or later replaced with “cooperation,” the two sides will do their best to emerge victorious from this strategic conflict which will certainly determine their “weight” and influence in other international developments.

Taking advantage of various “cards” and putting more pressure on the opposite side in other fields are among major steps to be taken by the parties involved in the ongoing confrontation. In this regard, the Western parties have taken such measures as initiating the third stage of the expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) toward east, strengthening the anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, suspending the presence of and cooperation with Russia in major European and international bodies (such as Group 8 and NATO), and considering economic, political and other sanctions against Moscow. On the opposite, Russia has been emphasizing ineffectiveness of such threats while, at the same time, evaluating its playing cards by taking such steps as military buildup along its western borders, waging a new “gas war,” reducing interaction and cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan, ceasing cooperation with the West in Russia and changing its potion on the nuclear case of Iran.

Other issues aside, the background of big powers with different viewpoints and interests bickering over the nuclear case of Iran clearly shows that this issue has enough potential to turn into a playing card in the ongoing political game between Russia and the West. Of course, due to the direct relationship that exists between Iran's nuclear case and international security, there is total agreement among Moscow, Brussels (European Union), and Washington over the general goals of the case in that all of them maintain that Tehran should not be allowed to develop nuclear bomb. However, it cannot be denied that all sides have been taking tactical advantage of this card as well.

The track records of Russia during more than a decade of international focus on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities show that while claiming to be sticking to its principled position on this issue, Moscow has been at times taking tactical advantage of the nuclear case. Fluctuations in Russia’s position on Iran's nuclear case are a result of this fact. The cautious approach taken to cooperation with the West over Iran's nuclear issue during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s second term in office (2004-2008), close cooperation with the West for putting more pressure on Tehran under former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012) and return to the past cautious approach to Iran's nuclear case by limiting cooperation with the West for putting pressure on Iran at the present time (i.e., Putin’s third term in office) are major highlights of Russia’s fluctuating positions on Iran's nuclear case.

The main and most important reason behind such vacillating positions has been the type of relations that existed between Moscow and Washington. In view of this history, now that tension is again the main characteristic of relations between Russia and the West, it would be logical to assume that this tension will leave its mark on Iran's nuclear case as well. When discussing this possibility and the fact that Russia may take tactical advantage of the nuclear issue in reaction to the West’s pressure on Moscow over the situation in Ukraine, three main factors should be taken into consideration. They include the goals and interests that Russia pursues through Iran's nuclear case, international conditions surrounding this case, and Tehran’s position. In strategic terms, Russia’s position on Iran's nuclear case is the function of three main principles:

1. Preventing Tehran from building a nuclear bomb;
2. Reducing the possibility of military action against Iran; and
3. Preventing Iran from getting aligned with the United States’ interests as a result of pressures.

On the other hand, four scenarios can be imagined for the future outlook of Iran's nuclear energy program in a large-scale analysis:

1. Iran's achievement of nuclear bomb;
2. Military action against Iran;
3. Submission of Iran to pressures exerted by the West; and
4. Reaching a nuclear deal and recognition of Iran as a peaceful nuclear power.

It is quite clear that under the present circumstances, the Iranian nuclear case is moving in line with the fourth scenario. Meanwhile, in view of the principled position taken by [Iranian President] Dr. Hassan Rouhani’s administration, which is based on averting the first three scenarios in favor of the fourth one, it would not be possible for Iran's nuclear case to move anywhere close to the first through third scenarios in the short term. Therefore, under present conditions, Russia cannot take any action with regard to the first three scenarios and it is only possible for Moscow to direct its political maneuvering toward the fourth scenario.

This means that by recognizing Iran's right to continue its peaceful nuclear energy program in more explicit terms and by following the same approach in its “practical policy,” Moscow would be able to get its position on the nuclear case close to that of Iran. By doing this, Russia would be able to build more confidence with Iran and prove its determination to stand in the face of the West’s bullying in practice. At the same time, Moscow will do its utmost to reduce the possibility of the first three scenarios because the first scenario will pose a challenge to security and geopolitical interests of Russia while the second and third scenarios will also help the West to meet its interests to the detriment of Moscow.

Despite the above facts, the state of affairs and present conditions indicate that Russia is losing more and more of its maneuvering room over the fourth scenario. This is true because the perception of “risk,” on the one hand, and “uncertainty” of the result, on the other hand, is sure to force Moscow to make more cautious moves. There is a “risk” because Russia cannot rule out the possibility that Tehran may take a decision to swap the fourth scenario in favor of the first one. When it comes to the first scenario, Moscow’s concern about the possibility of Iran building nuclear bomb is tantamount or even more than that of the West. It is noteworthy that Moscow has never trusted Tehran on this issue. Many people in Russia have reached the conclusion that Iran is insisting on the continuation of its nuclear energy program because the country is contemplating a military nuclear program. Therefore, they argue, although the Islamic Republic has sometimes stopped or slowed down the pace of its nuclear energy program temporarily, it is capable of speeding up that program any time it deems fit.

“Uncertainty” of the result is due to the fact that the tactical effort made by Russia to get closer to Iran under the present circumstances will not be necessarily met with a positive answer from Tehran. This is true as the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is well aware that such a positive answer can not only stir “unnecessary” concerns, but also pose a challenge to his government’s multifaceted foreign policy, which seeks to reduce tension with the world. It should be noted that the main factor, which has changed the course of Iran's nuclear case toward a diplomatic solution and has relatively reduced pressures on and threats against the country, is nothing but the approach taken by President Rouhani’s administration and his continued emphasis on the importance of “moderation” in foreign policy and pursuit of “constructive” interaction with the world. Such a policy has been practically followed through a change in “method” and tactic in Iran's nuclear case as well.

In line with these changes, Tehran has already adopted a pragmatic approach which gives priority to effective dialogue with the “main” party to nuclear negotiations; that is, the “West.” As a result, Tehran has not shown great enthusiasm for the “mediatory” role played by Russia and China. This new approach has been widely welcomed by the West and seems to be pursuing a wide range of goals beyond simple interaction with the West over the Iranian nuclear energy program. This approach will also reduce the maneuvering room for Moscow within framework of the fourth scenario. This situation was quite evident during negotiations over Iran's nuclear energy program in the Swiss city of Geneva in November 2013, in which the role played by Russia was by no means serious and led to speculations that finding a final solution to the nuclear case would be possible even with Moscow playing a “less” important role.

Of course, it seems that Moscow is also well aware of the limitations it is facing for playing the “Iranian nuclear case” card in its current faceoff with the West. As such, Moscow knows that “incorrect” use of that card will inevitably lead to further marginalization of its role in finding a negotiation solution to Iran's nuclear issue.


(1) Noori, Alireza (March and April 2014) “Russia and the Variable "US" in the Ten-Year Conflict over Iran's Nuclear Program,” National Security; nota bene. 2: 304-316 (in Russian)

Key Words: Iran's Nuclear Case Card, Russia-West Confrontation, Geopolitical Conflict, Zero-Sum Game, Crimea Peninsula, Commonwealth of Independent States, Ukraine, NATO, Nuclear Bomb, Hassan Rouhani, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Geopolitical Conflict and “Zero-Sum” Game of Russia and West in Ukraine:

*Russia-West Rivalry/Confrontation and Iran's Need to Be Cautious:

*Iran's Position in Russia’s Incoherent Middle East Policy:

*Photo Credit: INews

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