As Jerusalem meeting nears, Russia seeks ways to ease US-Iran tensions

Russia is urging the United States to cease provocations of Iran and also is seeking to persuade Tehran to stay in the nuclear deal.

al-monitor Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and head of delegation Sergei Ryabkov attends a conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in Beijing of the UN Security Council's five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — on Jan. 30, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Thomas Peter/Pool.

Jun 19, 2019

MOSCOW — As a meeting between the chiefs of the national security councils of Israel, Russia and the United States approaches, Moscow has been calling on Washington and Tehran to ease off tensions. On June 24, Meir Ben-Shabbat, Nikolai Patrushev and John Bolton will convene in Jerusalem to discuss Syria and the situation involving Iran.

On June 18, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who is in charge of the US file, made a lengthy statement criticizing the United States for its policy vis-a-vis Iran.

“We’ve noticed some US officials called some of Iran’s moves to suspend its obligations under the JCPOA as challenging international law and doing 'nuclear blackmail,'” the statement opens. The JCPOA is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with Iran on nuclear issues.

“It’s obvious that our American colleagues dealt a decisive blow to one of the most significant diplomatic achievements when they announced … withdrawal from the JCPOA. … US threats to sanction those who implement UNSC [UN Security Council] decisions are clearly beyond any common sense. We strongly recommend our American colleagues weigh which country's actions are best described as 'blackmail,'” the statement continued.

Speaking earlier that day to a group of reporters, Ryabkov said, "For quite a while, we have been witnessing the United States’ continuous attempts to increase political, psychological, economic and military pressure on Iran. I think that such actions are rather provocative and cannot be considered as anything other than a deliberate policy to instigate a war."

On the same day, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to Vienna-based international organizations, said Iran's plans to increase its uranium production are “in fact a political message.”

“Iran expects more energetic efforts to restore the balance between economic and nuclear parts of the JCPOA undermined by US sanctions," the diplomat tweeted.

Ulyanov said US policies have been designed to deliberately push Iran out of the JCPOA.

He said the JCPOA indicates that excessive amounts of enriched uranium (more than 300 kilos) and heavy water (more than 130 tons) "must be transported from Iran. As of May these provisions cannot be fulfilled. Those who would want to take these materials out [of Iran] will be sanctioned. This is how Washington squeezes Iran out of the nuclear deal.” 

The talks in Jerusalem may either turn a new page in US-Russia interaction on the Middle East or, as the Russian saying goes, hit another nail in the coffin of dashed hopes for such interaction. This comes amid major staff changes on the Russia track of US diplomacy. US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman may leave Moscow by the end of the year to run to become governor of Utah again in 2020. Fiona Hill, a special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council, is also reported as leaving her job at the end of August. Tim Morrison, who is expected to replace Hill, is an arms control expert and signals President Donald Trump’s intent to focus on this track as, perhaps, the only viable item on the bilateral agenda. US policy toward Russia is unlikely to change over the staff changes but the Middle East may, perhaps, continue to be one area Moscow and Washington can at least continue to communicate with one another about, if only to avoid a military collision.

A member of the Russian delegation dispatched to Jerusalem for the meeting told Al-Monitor, not for attribution, that the Russians are looking forward to the meeting but with modest expectations on possible deliverables.

“We expect a lot of diplomatic dancing around certain issues, we'll see, should be interesting discussions,” he said.

Asked whether Russia is going to reiterate its earlier proposals to the Israelis and Americans over the Golan Heights and some other key issues, the source said only, “There are still some issues that can be considered, not all the shots have been fired up.”

While the general positions of the parties are well known and appear irreconcilable, at least in their current forms, the very tone of the discussions and the optics of issues discussed are critical. The Jerusalem meeting may not necessarily produce a silver bullet that would help settle disagreements over Iran but the gathering's success could be defined by whether it can produce something that Presidents Vladimir Putin and Trump can discuss a few days later when they are likely to meet in Osaka, Japan, for the G-20 Summit on June 27-28. The Russian party has floated the idea for a full-fledged encounter as opposed to a “on the go” meeting between the two presidents.

“If the two presidents meet 'on the go' they won’t be able to discuss the whole range of issues on the bilateral agenda,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

He indicated that such a meeting could even be prepared as late as the eve of the summit.

Some in Tehran may be tacitly indignant with Moscow for not taking a more outspoken pro-Iranian stance. In May, Putin said Russia was no “firefighting squad” to be saving this or that deal, referring to individual responsibility for each party of the JCPOA to deliver on their own commitments. Moscow seeks to hedge its own bets and is not willing to be a direct party in a potential US-Israeli conflict with Iran. That said, it’s increasingly clear that Russia has not given up on a role of being an “ambulance team” ready to offer those itching for a military conflict a remedy of mediated ideas for the de-escalation of the situation. Yet should the parties seriously slip into thinking of war as the only way to settle the conflict, there’s little Russia could do to stop them.

For now, however, the logic that Moscow is coming from is that a military conflict doesn’t serve the interests of the United States. The bitter lessons of the Iraq campaign, the point goes, should have taught Washington that if the ultimate goal is to have Iran back in the orbit of US influence, military conflict may not necessarily guarantee such an outcome. If the goal of a war is to have Tehran change its behavior, this might indeed happen, but at a disproportionately high price for the region and for America’s own lives and resources.

But despite Tehran's possible distrust in and displeasure with Moscow, and Iran’s inclination to rely on its own capabilities and astuteness, Russia still seems to be seen by the Iranian leadership as the main outside actor Iran should cling to in times of greater Middle East turbulence.

Whether Russian proposals will be examined on their merits and adopted for the good of all parties may soon be revealed in Jerusalem.  

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