Where will Russian-Iranian relations go?

Friday 24/04/2015

WASHINGTON - As the June 30th “final deadline” approaches for a nuclear agreement between Iran and the six US-led world powers, it is far from sure whether a deal will be concluded, but if it is, it will open the door to improved ties between Iran and the West, as well as with China. So where will this leave Russia?
For years, Russian observers have spoken apprehensively about the possibility of an Iranian- American rapprochement. An Iran open to investment and trade with the West will soon lead to greatly expanded Iranian production and exports of oil and gas — something that will serve to reduce others’ dependence on Russian energy supplies.
Further, if normalised Iranian- American ties lead to oil and gas from the Caspian Basin countries flowing south through Iran to reach the world market, this will decrease Moscow’s transit rev­enues from, and political leverage over, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Perhaps Iran will even begin buying arms from the West instead of Russia.
In short, the more that Iran’s relations with the West improve, the less Tehran will need to rely on Moscow.
Still, Iran and Russia do have common interests on several issues. Both support the Assad regime in Syria. Both support the governments that the United States raised to power in Baghdad and Kabul. Both fear the rise of Sunni jihadists throughout the greater Middle East since these are anti-Shia and anti-Russian as well as anti-Western and anti-Israeli. Finally, both have wanted to limit US influence in the region.
The worry for Moscow is that once a nuclear agreement is reached, Tehran and Washington may expand their cooperation to the realm of regional security issues. Tehran’s goal of prevent­ing the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and the Islamic State (ISIS) from further weakening the Shia-led govern­ment in Iraq are not just aims that it shares with Moscow, but with Washington as well.
And if improved Iranian-Amer­ican ties lead to Iranian-American cooperation on resolving the conflict in Syria, Russia might be faced with acquiescing to whatev­er these two agree upon with the Syrian opposition’s key support­ers (Turkey and the Gulf Arabs), or becoming isolated from them all through continuing to support Assad regime intransigence on its own.
What, then, will Moscow do to preserve its interests if an Iranian nuclear agreement is reached? Some observers say that improv­ing Iranian-American ties will lead to improved Russian-Arab (as well as Russian-Israeli) relations. Instead, though, Moscow seems to be anticipating the possibility of improved Iranian-American ties through improving Russia’s own relations with Iran before the agreement is reached.
Just recently — and despite objections from the United States, Gulf Arabs, and Israel – Moscow ended its self-imposed embargo on shipping S-300 air defence mis­sile systems to Iran. The West, Gulf Arabs and Israel all worry that if Iran possesses these missiles, Teh­ran may calculate that it can de­velop a nuclear weapons capability that can survive an Israeli, or even US, attack and so feel emboldened to behave more aggressively than it does now.
If Moscow had offered to end its embargo on transferring S-300s to Iran in exchange for Tehran agreeing to P5+1 demands, this might have served as an important inducement to Iranian leaders to be reasonable in the nuclear ne­gotiations as well as reassured the United States and its Western allies that Moscow was being coopera­tive.
But the fact that Moscow made this unilateral concession to Tehran well before the June 30th deadline suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have other motives.
One might simply be that if Putin really does fear Iran will start buying Western weapons after signing a nuclear agreement, then he wanted this previously signed Russian-Iranian deal to go through so that Iran will continue to import some (if not all) weapons from Russia.
Another motive might be that Putin is hedging his bets in case a nuclear agreement is not reached. In this event, he may simply want to be in a position to exploit the likely deterioration in Iranian- Western relations that will result.
Indeed, by agreeing to end the Russian arms embargo on the S-300s, he may hope that this will result in both Tehran and Wash­ington becoming less willing to compromise and no nuclear accord being reached. With Russian ties to the West likely to continue to remain strained over Ukraine, Putin would undoubtedly prefer an Iran that also has poor relations with the United States and its allies than one that has improving ties with them.
These two possibilities, of course, are not mutually exclusive. It may be that by ending the Rus­sian embargo on S-300 transfers to Iran, Putin may seek to be positioning Moscow to have good relations with Tehran whether an Iranian nuclear accord is achieved or not.