Russia and Iran's Nuclear Dossier in Rouhani’s Tenure: The Need for a Change

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Alireza Noori
Expert on Russia Affairs

The election of Mr. Hassan Rouhani as the new president of Iran and the emphasis he has put on the “moderation” in foreign policy and “constructive interaction” with the world, are telltale signs which show the “high” probability that a major change in “methods” and approaches in Iran's foreign policy is on the horizon. At the same time the probability for these changes to include Iran's nuclear dossier and Tehran’s future negotiations with the 5+1 group of world powers seems to be “high” as well. The difference between past performance of Mr. Rouhani (as former top nuclear negotiator of Iran) and his successor Mr. Saeed Jalili as well as their different approaches to this issue, which was made clear in the election debates, has raised expectations about “tactical changes” in Iran's approach to nuclear talks. This reality has led to speculations about new conditions of the negotiations. The remarks made by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on June 18, 2013, about Iran's readiness to suspend 20-percent enrichment of uranium and the need for the West to take appropriate steps in order to remove anti-Iran sanctions in return, should be considered along the same lines.

Apart from correctness or incorrectness of Lavrov’s remarks, a more important question with regard to Russia is about Moscow’s position in and policy toward Iran under new circumstances. In other words, to what extent Russia would be able to influence the future course of efforts aimed at finding a solution to Iran nuclear case? To answer this question, we must first go over the past performance of Russia in this regard. The ups and downs in Moscow’s positions on this case clearly prove that Moscow has been consistently trying to adopt an intermediate position in order to protect its interests on both sides of this case; that is, Iran and the West, and introduce itself as a responsible player. Therefore, on the one hand, Moscow has acted in line with Tehran by putting emphasis on Iran's right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, continue uranium enrichment, and have an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle of its own, while slamming the West for imposing unilateral sanctions against Tehran and threatening the country with direct military attack. On the other hand, however, Russia has moved in line with the West by underlining the necessity of removing ambiguities surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities and the need for Tehran to come clean and give transparent answers to the existing ambiguities.

Although Russian officials in Kremlin have believed this policy to be positive, their approach has sometimes cause distrust in their honesty and evoked concurrent criticism of Russian policy in Tehran, Brussels and Washington. Some observers have even considered Russia’s policy as opportunistic. A more important flaw, however, in Russia’s practical policy toward Iran's nuclear case is the “high” degree to which it is influenced by another “variable,” which is the United States policy toward the nuclear case. Vacillations in Moscow’s relations with Washington under three consecutive presidents; that is, Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Medvedev, and then Putin again, and its impact on Moscow’s different positions on Iran’s nuclear case, which were marked with more cooperation with the United States under Medvedev followed by a more cautious approach taken by Putin, attest to this fact. It is noteworthy that under both presidents, Moscow has been trying to achieve its two main goals: firstly, to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and secondly, to prevent Iran from giving in to the United States’ pressures in order to use the nuclear case as a bargaining chip in its interactions with the West (not with Iran).

Although, in accordance with the logic of international political equations, Russia cannot behave totally independent when it comes to Iran's nuclear case, and it is logical for Moscow to get aligned with Washington in order to gain more benefits, its “excessive” dependence on the “United States” steering role in this case is, without a doubt, an important shortcoming for Russia. Even the general course of the nuclear case has proven that Russia is by no means able to take the initiative outside a framework which has been set for it by the United States. “Practical” inattention to Moscow’s step by step initiative for finding a solution to Iran's nuclear case was a clear indication of how limited is Moscow’s maneuvering room on this issue.

A careful review of the final “outcome” of Russia’s presence in the nuclear case of Iran will also reveal that Moscow has not been able to achieve any of its goals in this respect. On the contrary, the United States has achieved all its goals, including instrumental use of Moscow’s “presence” in this case to buy legitimacy for its unfair pressures on the Islamic Republic, especially for getting sanctions resolutions passed against Tehran. In the meantime, the politicians at Kremlin are well aware that the United States’ opposition to Iran's nuclear program is not real, but just a means of mounting pressures on Tehran in order to change Iran's foreign policy behavior. The fact that Moscow has already acknowledged that the main goal of “tough” sanctions against Iran is regime change, can be taken as good evidence which proves that such awareness actually exists among the Russian politicians.

The allusion by some Russian officials to the fact that the Western negotiators are not “serious” in nuclear talks with Iran, can be taken as evidence to Tehran’s claim that the United States is not interested in finding a solution to Iran's nuclear issues, at least, in the short run. Iranians argue that if this issue is finally resolved, the United States will lose one of the main leverages it is currently using to mount pressure on Iran. Consequently, the fact that Kremlin’s “theoretical” knowledge about the West’s large-scale goals in mounting pressure on Iran has had no effect on Moscow’s “practical” policy is at odds with Moscow’s allegations about its opposition to the United States expansionist policies and can prevent other countries from considering Russia as a “big independent power.”

In view of the changed climate in Iran following the recent presidential election and given the aforesaid flaws in the “practical” policy of Russia, it seems to be necessary for Moscow to review its Iran policy. Taking into account Mr. Rouhani’s track records as Iran's top nuclear negotiator, it would not be hard to guess that he will take a pragmatic approach to effective negotiations with the West, as the “main” negotiating party in general, and may even consider direct talks with the United States, in particular, if “conditions” permit. He is not also likely to be interested in taking advantage of “intermediaries” like Russia and China, or as put by some Russian analysts, to use the Moscow and Beijing cards in any forthcoming negotiations with the West.

Therefore, if conditions were suitable for the achievement of Mr. Rouhani’s main goal, which is having “high-level” talks with Europe and the United States, Moscow would no longer be able to play the role of “go-between” and Kremlin would have to just stand by and watch the negotiations and their outcome. The announcement by the United States about Washington’s readiness to engage in direct talks with Iran (which was made before Iran's presidential polls), may be the result of the United States’ assumption that it would be able to achieve a better result with Iran over the country’s nuclear energy program in the absence of Russia and China. If this situation is actually realized, it would greatly reduce the impact of Moscow on any future negotiations and, without any doubt, will not be a favorable option for Moscow. This is true because during the past years, Iran's nuclear energy program had provided Moscow with a good ground to find itself in the “position” of direct talks with the United States as a result of which, it had even reached “agreements” on certain issues with Washington.

Although Mr. Rouhani believes in a multi-vectoral policy and has already pointed to the importance of having a balanced level of relations with Russia, it is noteworthy that as the West’s pressures on Tehran increase as a result of the nuclear case, Iran looks to Russia as a balancing player. Therefore, if the time comes when Moscow would be no longer able to play that role, or under conditions when Tehran would have no further need to a “balancing factor,” it would be natural for Moscow to lose its current importance in the eyes of Tehran. As a result, if Russia fails to make changes to its current practical policy, it would not be illogical to assume that Moscow’s future role in Iran's nuclear case would begin to decline.

Key Words: Russia, Iran, Nuclear Dossier, Rouhani’s Tenure, Moderation, Constructive Interaction, Noori

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