Three Reasons Why Russia Won’t Wreck the Iran Nuclear Negotiations

As U.S.-Russian tensions mount over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, concerns have emerged about potential fall-out on areas of cooperation between the two world powers. The ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations, where the two states have partnered with Europe and China to hammer out a diplomatic framework for thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, loom large amidst the uncertainty. After all, the much vaunted Obama administration ‘reset’ of the U.S.-Russian relationship was predicated at least in part on the need for Russian cooperation on Iran. And any delay or stumble in the current talks with Tehran could put the already difficult task of obtaining a comprehensive deal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions totally out of reach.

Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov articulated Washington’s worst fears when he explicitly invoked the Iran nuclear issue as a potential area for Russian retaliation. The precipitant was President Obama’s announcement of new sanctions that are intended to provide broad authority for penalizing key areas of the Russian economy, if and as the conflict over Crimea escalates. “We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes…” Ryabkov warned. “But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well. The historic importance of what happened in the last weeks and days regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

It was a shot across the bow that belied the previous few days of constructive dialogue among Ryabkov and his American counterpart, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and representatives of the European Union, Britain, France, Germany, China and, of course, Iran. Sherman has reportedly insisted that the new bilateral frictions did not factor into the latest round of negotiations in any fashion, and Iran’s lead negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi described the latest round of talks as “positive and very good.” 

So how serious is the threat to the Iran talks? Any assessment of the recent history of both Russia and Iran highlights that anything is possible, and no one should underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthlessness. As Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn, a former Obama administration official, noted in the Financial Times that “if you look at this rationally there is no reason why Russians would want to undermine the [nuclear] talks in any way…but at this point you can’t count on him [Putin] making calculations of cost and benefit.”

Still, Putin has reportedly resisted calls for measures aimed at retaliating against the West, and similar fears about the impact of bilateral frictions after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia proved overblown. Today, there are at least three important factors that suggest that it may be possible to preserve cooperation on the Iranian nuclear file, even as Washington and Moscow spar over Crimea.

1. Russia shares American interests in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

As recent developments demonstrate — and my colleagues’ new book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin documents— Moscow sees the world differently from Washington, but not always in diametrically opposing terms. Its relationship with Iran reflects an array of interests and motivations, as Brookings Senior Fellow Fiona Hill explained in a recent interview broadcast on the PBS NewsHour. On the nuclear issue, the Russians oppose Iran’s expansive nuclear activities precisely because they recognize the threat it would pose to the region. An Obama administration official explained to The Daily Beast that the Russians “are invested in the diplomacy with Iran because it’s in their own interests, it’s not a favor to us.” 

Russian leaders were particularly aggrieved at 2009 revelations of an underground Iranian enrichment facility that Tehran had sought to keep hidden from the Russians as well as the world. That development proved crucial in convincing Moscow to sign onto a muscular UNSC resolution in June 2010 that was deliberately crafted to serve as a platform for additional sanctions against Iran imposed by Europe and other U.S. allies. Russia did not enact its own additional sanctions against Tehran, but Moscow found a way to communicate its displeasure to Tehran, cancelling the planned sale of an air defense system to Iran.

While Moscow and Washington may agree about the preferred end state for Iran’s nuclear program, they disagree over the means to get there. Like Beijing, Moscow generally opposes sanctions as a policy tool, and has only reluctantly acceded to the intensification of United Nations sanctions on Iran. And Russian officials have voiced concern that the sanctions’ severity may be aimed at a more ambitious objective than simply the end of Iran’s nuclear program, but rather the collapse of the Iranian regime itself.

My colleague Fiona Hill, the former senior U.S. intelligence official on Russia and Eurasia, explained this succinctly in a discussion on this topic held at Brookings in June 2012, “Russia traditionally is not a fan of sanctions. I mean, not just traditionally, but period, they’re not a fan of sanctions. They’re not a fan of sanctions at the U.N. level because they often get targeted against Russia and they’re certainly not a fan of unilateral sanctions, be they EU sanctions or U.S. sanctions because these do hurt Russian interests.”

The frictions over sanctions also underscore the divergence between Moscow and Washington over how high a priority the Iranian nuclear issue should rank. As Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2012:

“The Russians do not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons, but the level of urgency about this question in Moscow is less than it is in Washington. For the United States, a nuclear-armed Iran is a nightmare scenario. Russia, on the other hand, has had a more normal relationship with Tehran over the past 35 years. For the Russians, an Iran with nuclear weapons would be a very negative development, to be sure, but they believe—correctly or not—that they could cope with it, much as the United States has sought to deal since 1998 with an openly nuclear Pakistan. Moscow probably will not go as far as Washington would like in further pressuring the Iranian government, but that does not diminish the fact that the Russians have come a long way in supporting mandatory UN sanctions.”

2. The alternatives to the diplomatic process are mostly negative for Moscow.

In theory, the Russian leadership might be quite happy to see Washington’s efforts to resolve the Iran issue diplomatic collapse in failure. Watching Washington become enmeshed in another debilitating Middle Eastern military conflict would bring a smile to Putin’s face and quite a few additional rubles into his treasury, given the likely escalatory impact on oil and gas prices.

In practice, however, mucking up the negotiating process would not represent a net gain for Moscow; rather, it would deprive the Russians of a prized opportunity to assert itself as a global power. And any alternative to a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis could present a host of new potential headaches for a multi-ethnic state with a population of approximately 21 million Muslims, or 15 percent of its population. Fiona Hill discussed Russian interests vis-a-vis Iran on the NewsHour recently:

“(I)t’s very important for Russia to keep that [the Iran nuclear issue] in the confines of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has a veto. Russia doesn’t want to have a return to the situation where it was the United States and say Israel, making determinations about whether there might be a strike against Iran if the negotiations over the nuclear weapons program weren’t going in a direction that they wanted to. I think what we’re likely to see is Russia very carefully play with this issue so that things don’t get out of hand. They do want to show that there are consequences if the U.S. needs Russia on all of these instances that we’re talking about.” 

3. Russia’s economic relationship with Iran is too modest to subvert the sanctions regime.

Even if Moscow does not upend the negotiating process, there are legitimate concerns about how the Russians might seek to alter the context for those talks — possibly by torpedoing the very tool that many observers believe generated greater Iranian cooperation, the international economic sanctions regime that has battered Iran’s economy. These concerns are heightened by recent discussions between Tehran and Moscow of a massive barter deal that would swap up to 500,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude for Russian construction of another nuclear power plant along with other industrial and transportation infrastructure. And as Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned, Moscow may use “some other sanction-busting scheme” to retaliate against Washington’s efforts to penalize its Crimean policies.

Anything is possible, but the anxieties over a newfound economic axis of resistance disregard the realities of the existing Russian-Iranian relationship. It is grounded in mistrust and historical grievances — much like Tehran’s tortured ties with Europe and America. A scan of the Iranian press turns up regular references to the Treaties of Golestan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828), in which Iran ceded to Moscow its Caucasian territorial claims along with valuable economic prerogatives. Criticisms of more recent vintage focus on Russian foot-dragging in the construction of the Bushehr power plant, and its unwillingness to break ranks with Washington and the rest of the P5+1 or offer anything much beyond rhetorical support on the question of sanctions.

Despite the conventional wisdom that mercantile interests drive Moscow’s relationship with Tehran, just the opposite is true. Both are major energy exporters, and as such indirect competitors. This meant that Russia has been a direct beneficiary of the sanctions that halved Iran’s oil exports since 2011, as well as the measures that have helped ensure that Tehran remained only a marginal exporter of natural gas. Iranian officials and commentators are keenly aware of the implicit payoff for Putin’s cooperation with Washington on this issue.

The fears of a Russian resurgence within Iran’s economy are detached from the current realities. Once upon a time Moscow was the leading economic actor in Iran, but assiduous British competition and a series of accidents of history — including the Russian Revolution, the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union (which occurred just as Iran’s post-war reconstruction program got under way and scuttled several big bilateral deals) — have reduced its role to near insignificance today. The chart below, assembled with data from the International Monetary Fund’s Direction of Trade Statistics, suggests that Russia ranks far below both China and the European Union as a destination for Iran’s exports or a source for desired imports.


None of this suggests that both the Russians and Iranians won’t seek to exploit the opportunity of U.S.-Russian frictions to their own benefit. They most assuredly will. However, the opportunism and exigencies that have constrained the relationship to date will remain intact. Moscow may dangle reviving its contract with Tehran to supply the S-300 missile defense system, a deal which was ditched in 2010 in deference to U.S. pressure. And if the Crimean conflict prompts Russian firms and banks to retrench their stakes in Europe and the West, Iranian opportunities will inevitably look a bit more attractive, even if they come with sanctions risk.

Still, for its part, Tehran will likely remain wary of Russian enticements. The June 2013 election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani and the policies he has pursued confirm a painful recognition on the part of Iranian authorities — an affirmation that Iran’s economic woes cannot be remedied through sanctions evasion or mitigation or even expanding trade and investment with Asia. The regime’s stability requires a negotiated end to the nuclear impasse in order to access Western investment, trade and finance. The moderates appreciate that disarray among the world powers imperils this objective. Araqchi, Iran’s chief representative to the talks, acknowledged that “(w)e also prefer the P5+1 to have a unified approach for the sake of negotiations.”

For Iran’s hard-liners, external roadblocks to the talks are hardly undesirable. And many wholeheartedly agree with Putin’s paranoia about Washington’s intentions and the lurking threat of ‘soft revolution’ — this was precisely what drove their repression of mass protests over the 2009 presidential election and the continuing house imprisonment of the two candidates who contested the outcome.

However, Iranian history has engrained a profound aversion to the country’s use as a pawn in the competition among great powers, which are understood to be solely concerned with their own interests. These sentiments transcend partisanship and ideology, even in today’s Iran. The guardians of Iran’s revolution are unlikely to gamble on Putin’s fickle protections.