20 years under Putin: a timeline

A recently leaked interview with Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has potentially offered damning evidence of Russia’s role in the region—as a disruptor conspiring with Iran’s most radical forces to undermine the nuclear deal. While Zarif’s comments should be taken with a grain of salt, his take on Russia should be given serious consideration.

 

January 10, 2018: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow. Photo: mid.ru 

 

In the leaked interview Zarif describes how Russia tried to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by conspiring with former Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Al-Quds Force Qasem Soleimani. Zarif maintained that Russia was never interested in the Iran nuclear deal because Iran’s mending its ties with the West was seen as contrary to Russia’s own interests. Zarif’s assessment of Russia’s adverse role in the process focused on a pivotal meeting between Soleimani and Russia’s Vladimir Putin on 25 July, 2015, where a decision had been made that Russia would intervene in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad. Also, the meeting took place 11 days after the JCPOA had been signed in Vienna by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia—plus Germany (P5+1 format), and a short time frame for these events is crucial.

The meeting, according to Zarif, “was made upon Moscow’s initiative without the Iranian Foreign Ministry having any control over it,” and “its objective was to destroy the JCPOA.” The Russian decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war was done in such a way that tied Iran to the intervention, since Moscow agreed to give aerial support to Assad, while Iran was bound to provide ground support for the operation. This undermined Iran’s ability to fully improve its relations with the West and was one of the reasons cited by the Trump administration for leaving the agreement.

A lot of what Zarif has claimed in the interview goes against the common understanding of the interplay between Russia and Iran. The common assumption is that while Russia had its reservations about the JCPOA, it was generally facilitating the process because it served its core interests—avoiding unchecked nuclear proliferation and destabilization in the region. In 2015, Russia’s hesitations regarding the JCPOA were usually explained by the fact that the agreement was a mixed bag for Russia’s economic interests, giving it little competitive advantage in the opening up of Iran’s economy to international trade and investments. Moreover, Soleimani’s visit to Moscow in the summer of 2015 was portrayed as an attempt on his behalf to lobby Russia to intervene in Syria, and not the other way around. In a 2019 interview, former Commander of Iranian Forces in Syria Mohammad Jafar Asadi revealed that Soleimani reportedly told Putin that “Syria is the last stronghold of the Eastern front, and that, if Syria falls, Russia will have no value in the eyes of the West.” It is believed that back in mid-2015 Russia shared Iran’s assessment that the Assad regime was in imminent danger and needed direct help from both parties to survive.

While its diplomats engage with Western actors and moderate regional forces in legitimate diplomatic settings ostensibly for further stabilization in the region, behind closed doors Russia collaborates with the most radical forces to do the absolute opposite.

Zarif’s far-reaching accusations that run counter to mainstream understandings of Russia’s relations with Iran should be put into context. The leaked interview was not meant to be published in the near future, and what was said in conversation with the interviewer, who is an ally of Zarif and Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, represents their side of the story as to why the JCPOA failed, reflecting internal tensions within Iran. As noted by Israeli expert Raz Zimmt, Zarif and Rouhani have come under severe criticism on the Iranian domestic arena about the JCPOA, especially after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal. Zarif understandably is looking to fend some of the criticism by redirecting blame to other parties, whose actions contributed to the collapse of the agreement. Internal competition within the Iranian political elite is a well-known fact, and Zarif’s frustrations with the Revolutionary Guards should not come as a surprise. Such political context makes Zarif’s comments a very subjective interpretation of Russia’s role in the region and its relations with Iran.

Yet, this very subjective and contentious testimony may be a warning sign as to Russia’s overall growing appetite to engage with radical groups in the Middle East (and beyond) in order to achieve its ever more assertive and global foreign policy objectives. In February 2021, Hamas representatives met with Russian officials in Moscow, and a month later Moscow hosted a meeting with a Hezbollah delegation. Each of these visits had its own diplomatic agenda and context, but both Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations operating on the radical margins of regional politics. Last year, it was reported that Russia had built a channel to the Taliban and was using it to pay bounties to insurgents to attack U.S. forces. These relationships, together with what emerged from Zarif’s comments about Russia’s conspiring with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, position Russia as a far more problematic actor in the region than is commonly perceived.

It has long been claimed that one of Russia’s greatest assets in the Middle East is its ability to speak to all sides, making it an indispensable moderator. The record of its engagement with radical groups, however, shows that the Kremlin may have been playing a double game. While its diplomats engage with Western actors and moderate regional forces in legitimate diplomatic settings ostensibly for further stabilization in the region, behind closed doors Russia collaborates with the most radical forces to do the absolute opposite. Such a scenario would deem it useless to understand Moscow’s diplomatic stance, be it the Vienna talks on the Iran nuclear deal or any other international diplomatic effort. What matters more is how Moscow will act behind closed doors after the diplomatic accords have been signed, and if it intends to strike other deals with radical forces, undermining any chance for diplomacy and stability.

 

* 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. 

 

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