Paradoxical Implications of the Ukraine Crisis for Iran Nuclear Talks

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Nader Entessar

As if the Iran nuclear negotiations were not complicated enough, now these talks must reckon with the potential implications of the brewing Ukrainian crisis and the prospects of a new East-West rivalry with regional and international dimensions. With Russia and the U.S., two principal parties to the P5+1 talks, locking horns over Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine how they can continue “business as usual” on Iran when they are rapidly drifting apart. If the Ukrainian situation drags on or spirals toward a full-blown crisis with difficult-to-predict consequences, then it is a sure bet that the Iran nuclear talks will be impacted and the multilateral process may face formidable new challenges.

From Iran's point of view, this is an unfortunate and untimely development. The crisis has already adversely affected Iran's economic interests, in light of the growing economic ties between Tehran and Kiev under the now-deposed pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich. This may represent a loss of market for Iran, affecting its import of agricultural products from Ukraine. Also, more important, it may put Iran in an uncomfortable position, given the Rouhani administration's determination to make progress on the charted path of detente with the West while maintaining and even enhancing ties with Russia.  Russia is Iran's sole nuclear partner, shares Iran's strategic interests in Syria, and has been a backbone of Iran's resistance to unilateral Western sanctions, as reflected in a recent Tehran-Moscow multi-billion dollar oil-for-goods deal decried in the West as sanctions-busting.  Both countries have opposed NATO's post-Cold War eastward expansion and have also in the past questioned the stationing of American radars in Poland and the Czech Republic as countermeasure to Iran's missile threat. Thus the prospect of a future NATO expansion in Ukraine is not perceived from Tehran’s national security prism as a positive development. Therefore, even though Iran is concerned about Ukraine's territorial integrity, as clearly stated by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in his recent meeting with the visiting Polish Foreign Minister, Iran is simultaneously disquieted about U.S. and EU long-term intentions in Ukraine and the implications of a zealous pro-Western government in Ukraine.

Potential harms and benefits to the nuclear talks

The extent of the harm to the nuclear talks resulting from the tensions over Ukraine and Russia's military response depends on the scope and duration of this crisis.  If Russia is hit with punitive sanctions and further US-Russian cooperation on international issues is clogged up for the foreseeable future, then this could serve as game-changer, altering the nature of P5+1 negotiations. Not only that, there is concern in Iran that this crisis might trigger a more hawkish U.S. policy affecting Iran. Iran may be lured by through sanctions incentives to echo the Western position on Ukraine's sovereignty.  However, given Russia's proximity to Iran and the wealth of common interests between them, the price may be prohibitively high for Iran to take sides, as it would certainly raise Moscow's ire. Officially, then, we should expect a policy of neutrality on Iran’s part, but one with sufficient elbow room for tactical shifts and dynamic adjustments vis-à-vis a fluid and evolving Ukrainian crisis.

Furthermore, Iran's hardliners, some of whom are critical of the nuclear deal, may conclude that this crisis spells doom for the P5+1 front that is now crumbling before their eyes, thus warranting even closer common cause and solidarity with Russia. Already, the Ukraine crisis has instigated heated debates in Iran and provoked divergent responses along factional lines. Some Iran reformists have raised alarms about a resurgent Russian militarism and a number of centrist pundits have questioned the legality of Moscow’s military move in Crimea. Hardliners, however, have echoed Russia’s criticism of the “pro-West coup in Kiev.” An anonymous but influential article has viewed the “lessons of Ukraine” in terms of heightening “distrust of the West.”

Russia, for its part, may decide to tilt more overtly to Iran's side in order to secure Tehran's support for its emerging conflict with the West over Ukraine, and Tehran may also benefit from the distractions of the Ukraine crisis. A brief Tehran visit on March 8th by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was hailed by the official Iran new agencies as heralding a “new chapter” in Iran-EU relations, in light of President Rouhani’s statement that Iran is prepared to enhance its “strategic ties” with Europe.  In the short run, therefore, it is fair to say the Ukrainian crisis has benefited Rouhani’s policy of détente. Other related "crisis windfalls" include a spike in energy prices and the new market for Iran's oil precipitated by any loss of Russian exports due to disruptions in the oil and gas flow to Europe through Ukraine.  According to a Tehran source who wishes to remain anonymous, Lady Ashton raised the issue of “energy security” during her trip.

Any short-term economic gains for Iran would have to be weighed against the potential negative geopolitical and geostrategic ramifications, particularly with respect to the final-status nuclear negotiations, due to resume in Vienna on March 17th. These talks can now easily suffer due to the growing rifts between Russia and the Western powers, making it doubly difficult to come to any consensus. Compared to the 2008 Georgia crisis, when Russia maintained the course in the Iran nuclear talks, the possibility of a “sanctioned Russia” due to the new Crimean crisis can trigger an altered Russian negotiation behavior that would in turn affect the other parties’ calculations.

Simultaneously, in case of a protracted Ukrainian crisis with definite alterations in the threat levels in Iran's vicinity, Iran's own calculations of risks to its national security may experience a sudden jolt and thus force a re-appraisal of its national security priorities.  For example, there may be a greater propensity to maintain Iran's nuclear capability that is presently reflected in the country's possession of thousands of centrifuges and an advanced nuclear fuel cycle potentially capable of manufacturing enough fissile material for several nuclear bombs. In other words, a potential net impact of a full-blown Ukrainian crisis "near abroad" could well turn out to be the hardening of Iran's "proto-nuclear" status. But at the moment, few Iranians, particularly in the policy circles, are hedging their bets on such a severe development. The predominant thinking is that this crisis will not get out of hand. Still, Iran is contemplating a mediation role via its current presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and a former adviser to the Iranian nuclear negotiating team (2004-2006). Nader Entessar is professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama. They have written a forthcoming book entitled Iran: Nuclear Negotiations and Detente.

Source: Iran Matters-Harvard Belfer Center

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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