The Iranian nuclear deal: What’s in it for Moscow?

Friday 24/07/2015
Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan in Moscow last April.

Washington - Many observers (in­cluding myself) have pointed out that the Iranian nuclear agreement could have negative consequences for Russia. The reduction of interna­tional economic sanctions against Iran means that more oil and gas will come onto the world market, which will lower petroleum prices and thus negatively affect Russia and other petroleum exporters.
In addition, if a broader Iranian rapprochement with the United States and the West occurs, Tehran will have less need for coopera­tion with Russia — and Irani­ans take a dim view of Rus­sia anyway, given the two nations’ long contentious history.
Despite this, Moscow can expect benefits from the Iranian nuclear agree­ment. These include:
Increased Russian ex­ports of arms, nuclear reactors and other prod­ucts to an Iran that will soon have more money to spend as well as more freedom to spend it due to the removal of sanctions;
Increased opportunities, also due to the removal of in­ternational sanctions against Iran, for Russian firms to invest in the Iranian petroleum sector;
The possibility of increased eco­nomic interaction with the Gulf Arab states that are annoyed with US President Barack Obama’s ad­ministration for signing off on the Iranian nuclear agreement and show their displeasure with Wash­ington by buying Russian arms, nuclear reactors or other goods (Russia, of course, also ap­proved the Iranian nuclear agreement but since the Gulf Arabs have far lower expec­tations of Russia, Moscow hopes they will overlook this);
The ability to more credibly ar­gue, as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has, that because an Ira­nian nuclear agreement has been achieved, US plans to deploy bal­listic missile defences to Europe against a feared Iranian threat should be abandoned. Moscow has strenuously objected to the missile defence system and claims it really is aimed at Russia; and, possibly,
The hope that, because Rus­sia supported the Iranian nuclear agreement despite increased ten­sions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine, Rus­sia will be seen by some (if not all) Western governments as a “respon­sible actor” and help Moscow’s ef­forts to undermine the Western sanctions regime against it.
But in addition to these benefits that Moscow might obtain if the Iranian nuclear agreement goes for­ward, Russia is well positioned to benefit if it does not go forward — especially if it is rejected by the US Congress. If this happens, Iran, Rus­sia and many other governments, including Western ones, will blame the United States — and not Iran — for the failure of the agreement. In that event, Russia stands to benefit in several ways, including:
Support for the international sanctions regime against Iran is likely to crumble if the United States is blamed for the failure of the agreement and American ties will deteriorate not just with Iran, but with many other coun­tries;
To the extent that Western governments fall out with the United States over sanctions against Iran, this will undermine the West­ern alliance — some­thing Moscow has long sought;
Western governments that fall out with Washington are likely to be more willing to aban­don US-backed sanctions against Russia; and
Iranian willingness to turn to Russia for economic and military support will increase.
Some may point out that in­creased Russian support for Iran would tend to hurt Russia’s image in the Arab world. But if indeed the collapse of the Iranian nuclear ac­cord would lead to improved Irani­an-Russian ties, turmoil within the Western alliance and American iso­lation, Moscow may consider poor­er relations with the Arab world a cheap price to pay for all this.
Besides, Moscow may calculate that if the Gulf Arabs in particular are worried about increased Rus­sian support for Iran, then what they should do is turn to Russia for support to provide Moscow with an incentive to restrain Iranian behav­iour in the region. Moscow would undoubtedly be willing then to serve as a mediator.
Whether the Obama administra­tion will succeed in overcoming congressional objections to the Iranian nuclear accord is not clear. Russia, though, will attempt to ben­efit from either situation.
Moscow stands to gain much more if US Republicans block the agreement than if they do not. This ought to give Republicans pause to consider whether blocking the agreement is really in the United States’ interest. So far, though, they do not seem to be doing so.