Will Russia disrupt Iran nuclear talks?

Russia could choose to escalate its relationship with the United States and Europe by interfering in the Iran nuclear negotiations.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 28, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski.
Paul J. Saunders

Paul J. Saunders

@1796farewell

Topics covered

russia, oil, nuclear negotiations, mohammad javad zarif, iran, congress, china

Mar 29, 2015

Notwithstanding earlier fears that Russia could act as a “spoiler” in nuclear talks with Iran — particularly as its relations with the United States and most European governments continue to deteriorate — Moscow may actually be less able to use such leverage as a deal looks increasingly possible.

Russia’s ability to disrupt the talks, as well as its broader relationship with Iran, has been a key US concern for quite some time. In the past, I have myself argued that growing Russian support for Iran could be a dangerous consequence of a hostile US-Russia relationship. Nevertheless, the potential costs to Moscow in disrupting the negotiating process will likely increase significantly as an agreement looks more and more probable.

Of course, any effort to wreck the process at this point would represent a dramatic escalation in Moscow’s ongoing confrontation with Washington and its European allies, especially at a time of (relative) calm in Ukraine. Still, if heavy fighting resumes and the United States elects to provide lethal arms to the Kiev government, the current standoff could spiral beyond either side’s control. The time remaining before the summer deadline for a final Iran deal is more than sufficient for this.

Yet, the Kremlin could face three serious problems if it chose to play the spoiler as many have long worried. (Any decision to do so would come from the Kremlin, not Russia’s Foreign Ministry or its capable chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.) First, Iran’s leaders appear to want a deal. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have certainly worked hard to attain an agreement; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tolerated their effort. Moreover, while Iran’s government might reap domestic political benefits if it could blame a collapse in the process on Washington, this would be a harder case if Moscow were clearly responsible. Tehran wants Russian threats to bolster its negotiating position, not to undermine a potentially satisfactory outcome. With that in mind, once the talks reach a certain point, blocking an agreement would harm rather than help Russia’s relations with Iran.

Second — and perhaps more seriously — China wants a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, too, to remove sanctions that constrain its economic relationship with an important energy supplier. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly said to US Secretary of State John Kerry that the negotiations “must not fall short for lack of a final effort” in a recent phone call, adding that “all sides should be steadfast in their political will, meet each other halfway and push for the reaching of a comprehensive agreement.” Beijing would surely have the same message for Moscow. Indeed, taking into account that China’s oil imports from Iran increased by 30% last year as sanctions relaxed under the Joint Plan of Action, Russian action to destroy the negotiating process could anger and alienate Chinese officials. Moscow cannot afford to threaten its most promising economic and political lifeline while simultaneously confronting the West.

Third, Russia would find relatively little sympathy elsewhere for taking such an approach. Its other partners in the BRICS group — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — would hardly appreciate Russian moves to kill the negotiations; India has a particular interest in its own economic and political relationship with Iran and the two have some significant common interests. (Among other things, neither likely welcomes the idea that India’s rival Pakistan could share nuclear technology with Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia — something many in Russia could also find alarming.) In fact, very few governments would welcome an abrupt end to the talks at Moscow’s hands and Russian steps to do so could isolate Russia in a way that its seizure of Crimea has not.

Nevertheless, if Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to become a spoiler, some might tacitly (though not openly) welcome it — at least in the short term. Realistically, however, this outcome would include only a fraction of those who think that no deal is better than the deal they expect: perhaps some Republicans in the US Congress, some of Iran’s competitors in the Gulf region and some in Israel. But even this group may not continue to feel the same way over time. And none of these would likely align with Moscow under such circumstances.

After all, the talks would be falling apart in the context of rapidly spiraling escalation in Ukraine that could lead to large-scale Russian intervention or worse. This would be a severe blow to the existing international order that would have unpredictable but likely quite damaging consequences for efforts to put additional pressure on Tehran to get tougher terms. Beyond that, if the Obama administration eschewed military action against Iran — which might be strategically justified in a true crisis, edging toward a nuclear confrontation, in Europe — no deal could end up looking like a less attractive result for them, too. In Israel’s case, it would make the risks of unilateral action much higher if the odds of subsequent US involvement were lower due to US preoccupation with Ukraine.

The bottom line is that if the Kremlin sabotages the Iran talks at what many would see as the last moment, Russia’s leaders could become very lonely at precisely the time when Moscow’s other circumstances would most require others’ cooperation. In other words, it would make Russia’s confrontation with the United States and the West more dangerous to Russia and its leaders, not less.

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