Russia and the Challenge of Iran's Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement

Thursday, April 16, 2015

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

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries came to a conclusion on April 2 in the Swiss city of Lausanne after the two sides reached a preliminary “political agreement.” One of the main points about the agreement was the show of a strong pragmatic will by the administrations of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama to pull off the negotiations and direct talks between Tehran and Washington. In the meantime, although some European members of the P5+1 group managed to advance their interests and positions in cooperation with the United States, the noteworthy point was low-key role played by Russia and China despite their differences with the Western sides.

Therefore, although Russia’s deputy foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator, Sergei Ryabkov, lauded the role played by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the achievement of the agreement, and Andrey Klimov, Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs of the Council of the Russian Federation, noted that reaching the agreement would have been impossible without Russia, in reality, Moscow played an insignificant role in these round of nuclear talks. There is no doubt that this situation is not favored by Russia, especially under conditions that West is trying to isolate this country. In the meantime, Iran's nuclear talks can be an opportune means through which Moscow can prove the failure of efforts made to isolate this country and, in doing so, show effectiveness of Russia’s foreign policy.

Of course, Russia does not simply seek political benefit through the talks and some Russian analysts maintain that continuation of the current situation of neither war, nor agreement between Iran and the West, is more beneficial to Moscow than resolution of Iran's nuclear case. Increased price of crude oil in international markets, deflecting attention of the West from Russia and member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as increasing the West’s dependence on Russia for solving its problems in the Middle East are among other benefits that Russia seeks through the continuation of the status quo. Of course, officials in Kremlin are well aware of the disadvantages of most scenarios that can be considered as alternatives to reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. Therefore, they believe that finding a diplomatic solution to this issue is the best option. However, as said before, Russia’s ability to promote its policy has been reduced and three main reasons can be enumerated for this situation.

Firstly, although Moscow has based its approach on “moderate” positions, its policy at the end of the day, has been always a function of Moscow’s relations with the West and lack of good leadership is quite evident in that policy. The disadvantage of this approach is that it restricts Moscow’s maneuvering space to the framework defined by the Americans, who had practical leadership of the recent round of nuclear negotiations in Switzerland. Therefore, Moscow’s inability to exert necessary influence in this round of talks can be considered a result of its past mistaken performance.

The second reason for Russia’s low-key role is the nuclear policy adopted by Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. By adopting a pragmatic approach, he made the United States the main negotiating party of Iran and did not look upon Russia as an inevitable mediator, which should be used as a balancing power. In this approach, since the positions taken by both sides were quite transparent, Tehran paid less attention to tactical use of internal differences among the member states of the P5+1 group, including Russia’ differences with the United States.

The third reason was the United States’ policy toward Russia. To legitimize the pressures that it exerted on Iran, Washington needed to forge international consensus and it took good advantage of Moscow in its effort to achieve this goal, including for the adoption of sanctions resolutions at the United Nations Security Council. Of course, the United States did not, and still does not, have absolute freedom of action, but it managed to effectively prevent Russia from playing a key role. At present, Washington has no need to take tactical advantage of Russia. Differences between the West and Russia have been also a factor why the United States has not been willing to let Russia play a prominent role in the nuclear talks.

However, “reduced” role of Russia in the “current” course of Iran's nuclear dossier does not mean that Moscow has totally lost its power to influence future trends. This is true as the nuclear case has still a long way to go before resulting in a final agreement. Formulation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and especially its implementation and verification will be very difficult and there are many factors that can make the future very much different from what it seems today. Russia is well aware that “Iran's nuclear threat,” which has been raised within the geopolitical context of the Middle East will maintain its dynamism within this context. Therefore, in view of the chaotic situation in the region, Moscow will be still needed as a balancing factor, especially within framework of trilateral interactions among Iran, West and Russia.

Under these circumstances which may come about in future, Russia’s power levers, which have become somehow inefficient at the present juncture, will once again prove quite useful. Of course, as requisite for regaining its past influence, Russia first needs to review its policies and strive more toward a “diplomatic solution” to Iran's nuclear case. This is even truer as many parties in the West and Israel prefer other options, which if chosen, would be neither to Russia’s benefit, nor to Iran's.

Key Words: Russia, Iran, Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, Hassan Rouhani, P5+1, Sergei Ryabkov, Middle East, Inevitable Mediator, United States, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Incentives and Impediments to Iran-Russia Military Cooperation:

*Regional and International Assumptions and Realities in Iran-Russia Relations:

*Russia, West and Endless Game of “Containment”:

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