Recent developments in the Middle East look to be further strengthening the relationship between Iran and Russia. The election of relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, holds great promise for the future of the diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear programme that the Russians have invested a great deal in, and in which they have supported reduced sanctions. Diplomatic cooperation between the two over continued support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and more recently how to respond to use of chemical weapons, have also brought them closer. And, if the United States can move past its political and diplomatic nervousness, or its fears that others will benefit more than themselves from diplomatic breakthroughs, this relationship may also hold some real opportunities for the United States: specifically, in improving prospects for cooperation in the high-level talks around Iran’s nuclear program - which has been a key U.S. foreign policy priority for over a decade.
Recent Iran-Russia bilateral developments
Despite Russia’s 2010 decision not to sell its advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran - a decision which Russia made in light of U.N. sanctions against Iran, but which Iran is contesting at the International Arbitration Court in Geneva - their security relationship continues to grow closer as they find common ground on many international issues.
In January 2013, Russian Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev was the first Russian interior minister to travel to Iran since 1979. Both countries agreed on a security pact which included sharing intelligence information on international issues. The two have developed their naval cooperation in the Caspian Sea, and Moscow pledged assistance to Tehran in developing the capabilities of a new paramilitary unit to help with domestic unrest.
Rumors that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit Tehran to meet with the newly-inaugurated Rouhani on August 16, shortly after Iran’s Presidential elections, did not pan out. However, the events in Syria in late August soon provided cause for public and high-level diplomatic cooperation between the two countries. As dynamics shifted following the August 21 chemical weapon attacks, Russia and Iran have worked together, voicing support for a diplomatic and regional solution and condemning threats of Western military intervention.
Presidents Rouhani and Putin most recently met at the end of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Kyrgyzstan on September 13. Putin called for issues around Iran’s nuclear program to be resolved, but couched it in language stressing the long history of cooperation. Rohani, for his part, emphasized Iran’s willingness to cooperate with Moscow in solving regional issues in the Middle East. The Bishkek Declaration signed by the SCO on September 13 stated that “the threat of military force and unilateral sanctions against the independent state of [Iran] are unacceptable.” In further support of Iran’s nuclear energy program, Putin told the SCO “that Iran, the same as any other state, has the right to peaceful use of atomic energy, including enrichment operations.”
Russia and Iran have also continued their troubled and extended technical cooperation at the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi recently confirmed that the two states had held consultations, and predicted that “soon an agreement of mutual understanding will be signed on the construction of a new nuclear power plant.”
What does this mean for the Russia-U.S. relationship over Iran’s nuclear program?
Meanwhile, dynamics between the U.S., Russia and Iran continue to shift. Prior to the recent agreement on chemical weapons in Syria, the U.S. relationship with Russia had been growing increasingly frosty; and yet, potential new avenues for dialogue appear to be emerging with Iran, following Rouhani’s election. The Russia-Iran dynamic adds an interesting twist.
In an effort to apply ever-increasing pressure on the government, the United States and its allies have continued to ratchet up sanctions against Iran; Russia, by contrast, has opposed any sanctions which go beyond those approved by the U.N. Security Council, while still stressing that it would not support Iran’s development or acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Sanctions have impacted upon Iran’s economy. But they are an imprecise tool that many would argue cannot be effectively used in isolation: they need to be complemented by smart diplomacy. One of the many risks for the United States in walking further down the sanctions track is that it may result in an ever stronger Russian-Iran relationship which excludes the U.S. from the process. The work involved in undoing advanced sanctions is difficult politically, and bureaucratically, even with Congressional cooperation (see Andrew Cockburn’s recent article in Harper’s). Nikita Shah, writing for BASIC 18 months ago, suggested that Russia has the right idea in taking an engagement, rather than isolation, track with Iran.
There may also be another contested U.S. lesson emerging from its experience with Syria. Despite the claims coming from the Administration that it was the threat of military action that caused Assad to agree to rid himself of his chemical weapons, it seems more likely that it was pressure from Russia. The credibility of the military threat was already evaporating as opposition in Congress grew.
Russia undoubtedly has an interest in preventing greater political instability across the Middle East, including from Iran’s nuclear program. It has a strong interest in seeing the nuclear talks resume and succeed. Russian defense minister Dmitri Rogozin opined out in January 2013, “Should anything happen to Iran, should Iran be drawn into any sort of political or military difficulties, it would be a direct threat to Russia’s national security.”
The continuing cooperation between Russia and Iran may bode well for progress in Iran’s talks with the P5+1 (the Permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany; also known as the E3+3). Russia’s support for sanction reductions on Iran may give Iran the confidence to move forward with talks and relieve some of the mistrust Iran exhibits in the U.N. Security Council, given that Russia is a strong influence in the P5+1 dynamic. An international understanding supported by all states directly involved in the process could alleviate tensions in the Middle East.
But first these talks need to re-start. Rouhani’s move into office has provided new opportunities. The EU’s Catherine Ashton, the Iranians and the Russians have publicly called for the talks to be resumed as soon as possible. To what extent the Syrian crisis will have an impact on the approach of all major players in the P5+1 negotiations remains to be seen. For Iran, President Rouhani may be supportive of serious talks, but whether the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, will be receptive to changes expected from the United States is still unclear. US-educated Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been appointed as the new nuclear negotiator. The appointment is seen by many as an indicator of Rouhani’s willingness to support his verbal signals with action. Rouhani commented that “Our nuclear program is transparent but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” he said, and that Iran is “ready to engage in serious and substantial talks without wasting time."
Building confidence on all sides will inevitably be a major challenge, but Russia could play a particularly important role in reducing Iranian mistrust toward the P5+1 and provide some needed leverage. As the conflict in Syria also unfolds, it is becoming increasingly evident that diplomacy is seen by many as the best way to tackle the security challenges in the Middle East and attain a long-term, viable resolution. Russia might also end up playing a similar role in negotiations with Iran and Western powers.