20 years under Putin: a timeline

In 2015, Russia claimed credit for helping the United States clinch the nuclear deal with Iran, which was upended by the Trump administration three years later. The Biden administration has already invited Tehran to restart nuclear talks, and Moscow is willing to act as a power broker again. But the Kremlin’s influence over Iran is more limited than it would like to show.

 

March 28, 2017: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss bilateral cooperation. Photo: kremlin.ru. 

 

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden called for Iran to return to negotiations over a new nuclear deal, even before the U.S. removed sanctions that had been re-imposed by the Trump administration. Iran, for its part, took a hard line, refusingto come back to negotiations. Following the exchange, it became apparent that getting Iran back into the negotiation process might be tricky, which provides an opportunity for Russia to act as a power broker due to its close relations with Iran and membership in the EU3+3 Iran talks format alongside Britain, Germany, France, China, and the U.S. Russia’s willingness to cooperate might be pivotal for the eventual failure or success of this diplomacy.

Luckily for the U.S., despite strained relations with Russia and a new round of U.S. sanctions against it, Moscow’s interests align with the Biden administration’s plan to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Hence, Russia is likely to try to assist; however, the real problem lies with its limited influence over Iran’s position due to the latter’s domestic political competition.

Russia and Iran have a complex relationship. On the surface, the two countries demonstrate a strong and durable alliance, which includes high-level visits, economic and military cooperation, and cultural exchanges. Russia joined Iran in the Syrian civil war, where they formed a coalition with Bashar al-Assad to save his regime. Iran and Russia regularly hold joint militarily exercises, sometimes with third parties, such as China. Closer scrutiny, however, shows a more complicated relationship that over the years has endured ups and downs. Many aspects of Russia-Iran cooperation are fraught with competing interests. In Syria, for instance, both Russia and Iran tussle for political influence over the country’s future development, as well as for resources. In nuclear issues, too, over the years, Russia has demonstrated its aversion to Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship.

Historically, shared animosity toward the West and the willingness to challenge Western hegemony kept the two countries close. In many instances, as relations with the West worsened for either Russia or Iran, they were drawn closer together. Recently, as Russia’s relations with the West deteriorated, the Kremlin actively sought to present a close partnership with Iran and appeared to coordinate its position on the nuclear deal even before negotiations have started. Yet, both Russia and Iran always kept the door open for cooperation with the West when it served their respective national interests—sometimes despite ongoing rivalries with the West on other issues. Russia, for instance, cooperated with Western partners to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015 despite falling out with the West over the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. 

Despite the pretense of close relations, Russian sway over Iranian decision-making is known to be limited.

In 2021, Russia is again expected to try and play along to bring about a new nuclear deal with Iran due to its fundamental interests in lifting the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran after it had withdrawn from the JCPOA and as part of its so-called “maximum pressure” strategy. Russian interests here are twofold. First, an agreement along the lines of the JCPOA curbs Iranian abilities to develop nuclear weapons. While Russia is less averse than the West to the possibility of a nuclear Iran, fundamentally it would still prefer for this scenario not to materialize. Russia has continuously signaled that it does not view Iran’s hardline nuclear ambitions favorably. If Iran ever managed to come close or indeed acquire nuclear weapons, its standing in the Middle East and beyond would be bolstered contrary to Russian interests. It might spark a military conflict with Israel, trigger a regional nuclear arms race, and embolden Iran to pursue more hostile policies of regional subversion. 

Second, a renewed nuclear deal with Iran aligns with Russia’s economic interests. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal hurt Russian companies that sought to enter the Iranian market following the JCPOA. The economic setup of the JCPOA was not particularly favorable for Russia: the arms embargo envisioned for the initial period of the deal meant that Moscow could not sell weapons to Iran (a potentially lucrative area), while elsewhere it would face competition from international actors. Indeed, Russia’s Sukhoi lost out to Boeing and Airbus when Iran decided to purchase civilian airliners from these Western companies. Still, the Russian oil, financial, and construction sectors managed to launch large projects in Iran, which were upended when the U.S. reintroduced sanctions. Fearing secondary sanctions, Russian companies left Iran, but if a nuclear deal is re-instated, these markets will open up for Russian businesses again.

Despite its interests in an Iran deal, Russia is unlikely to do any heavy lifting for the U.S. during the negotiations. In fact, the Kremlin is known to be uninterested in “fixes” to the JCPOA, which the U.S. is planning to introduce, nor will it promote any of them. Specifically, Russian diplomats would not want the agreement to regulate the activities of Iran’s subversive proxies in the Middle East. Moscow views regional affairs as unrelated to nuclear ones. Besides, it effectively relies on these same proxies to fight in the Syrian war. 

As in 2015, Russia is again expected to join the negotiations with Iran and help reach a nuclear deal, as long as it is similar to the JCPOA. The real question is: does the Kremlin have enough influence over Iran to ensure its return to the negotiating table? Despite the pretense of close relations, Russian sway over Iranian decision-making is known to be limited. And Russian influence might shrink even further after the Iranian presidential elections, slated for June 18, in which the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is rumored to be running again. If Iran elects a hardliner, such as Ahmadinejad, to lead the country, Russia will have little say over when or how Tehran should return to the negotiations.

 

* Vera Michlin-Shapir is an expert on Russian foreign and defence policies, as well as Russian politics and media. She worked at the Israeli National Security Council, Prime Minister’s Office, 2010–2016. 

Russia under Putin

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