Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during a meeting ahead of the upcoming meeting of the Council of the Heads of States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in QINGDAO, China - JUNE 9, 2018
For Iran and Russia, several points are defining in their bilateral interactions:
1. History of bilateral ties in pre- and after-revolution period;
2. History of the Iran nuclear profile for the past 10 years (more a pretext for exerting pressure on Iran, the “enfant terrible” of the region);
3. Issue of trust;
4. Perception of each other as a regional and international actor, mutual expectations;
5. Correlation of own actions with the state of relations with the other actors, assessing benefits and possible losses from cooperating with one another;
6. Developments in the domestic politics of both countries.
These factors predefine the relationship as “cautious”, or how Vladimir Sazhin called them many years ago “cautious partnership”. The matter of trust in this relationship is marked as a key one by some scholars, but operationalization of this term might be different from scholar to scholar or from politician to politician. Not the least in the queue is that how Russia behaved in the nuclear negotiations (expressing support for Iran, but supporting the sanctions as well, especially the UNSC resolution № 1929 of 2010 when Russia put S-300 supply on halt). For better understanding by the Iranian side, one should pay attention on certain principles that Russia is guided by in its policy planning:
Russia deems its policies independent and would not engage in creating alternative “axis of resistance”, even in the light of the new US sanctions act of 2017 (however both countries share the unwillingness to accept the American global dominance, so it is a common vision of the world order or at least the order both does not want to see). Iran and Russia’s foreign policy aspirations and weight in the world are asymmetric. Iran possibly would like to have Russia as a strategic partner, but in the list of Russian priorities Iran occupies different position. Russia acknowledges that Iran is an important and powerful regional actor, whose participation is necessary for resolving the regional issues. Furthermore, in some cases it acknowledges that Iran has more capacity to manage certain issues. Russia is pursuing its own interest. Selling its services in the atomic industry and more product of its weaponry industry is included into its interest. Thus, Russia is interested in Iran abiding the requirements that are related to these needs. First, is to make sure its nuclear program is solely of peaceful character; thus Iran is a trustworthy partner and no new international sanctions will be imposed. Second, is Russian own concern about physical security of the projects and materials. Third, is again to make sure there is no sanction so it could be able to sell heavy arms (like T-90 or SU-30 jets) in a long-term perspective.
Due to the roots of the Iran nuclear crisis, JCPOA was more of a politically charged nature, rather than resolving a heavy international security issue. After the so-called “change of strategy” towards Iran within the Trump’s administration, Russia was among the first to condemn the disruption of the normal process within the framework set up by JCPOA. Deputy Ministers of foreign affairs Abbas Araghchi and Sergey Ryabkov met in Moscow in October 2017 and confirmed the necessity to adhere to JCPOA. Deputy Minister of foreign affairs Sergey Ryabkov stated: “Moscow does not doubt about Iran's performance under JCPOA. No “new configuration” of the deal is possible, and Moscow is not ready to participate in any negotiations to amend the agreement.” During the conference on «25 years of Russia-Iran cooperation in peaceful use of atomic energy: new perspectives according to the Apex3 to JCPOA” held in Moscow on 17-18 October 2017, where representatives of Russian and Iranian governmental bodies and Rosatom took part (deputy head of AEOI Behrooz Kamalvandi from Iranian side), the parties confirmed their commitment to this “working, balanced document that satisfies interests of all the parties that took part in producing it”. Moscow insists on the value of JCPOA and stands for its survival. This case is the first one when the sanctions imposed based on the chapter VII of the UN Charter were withdrawn as a result of negotiations and not the military actions, thus it carries a special value for the participants. However, many other issues that caused the crisis around Iran’s national nuclear program remain unresolved, as the suspicion about Iran’s military ambitions remained a lame cover for a broader problem of geopolitical and historical nature.
Interestingly, while Trump speaks about the need to review JCPOA, Iranians raise the issue of the need to review the NPT. It is far not the first time that with all the pressures that Iran considers unfair, officials in Tehran start question fairness of the non-proliferation system in a whole. Russia yet sticks to the non-proliferation narrative about the Iran’s nuclear issue (as opposite to the “political”). Russia’s officials do not comment on Iran leaning towards the West after JCPOA, but the experts outlined scenarios unfavorable for Russia. Now, that Moscow might have a feeling of being “in one boat” with Tehran, yet it is not going to align with Iran on most issues. However, for Russian government Iranian program is not a defining factor for the bilateral ties, security problems of the regional scale play a greater role. Is forming of the united anti-American front as a result of Trump’s demarche against Iran possible? Will this motion unite Iran, Russia and Europe which supports the agreement? Politically might be, technically the other countries and businesses inside them will think about the risks. In fact, JCPOA is not an agreement per se, but exactly the plan of action. Parties did not ratify the agreement. The resolution 2231 of the UN SC that includes JCPOA text calls upon the member countries to support the plan and does not have a reference to the article 41 of the UN Charter which means that parties to the agreement keep abiding to it until they feel it serves their interests.
Even if the US quits JCPOA, it is not the end, depends on the political will of the other parties. Good example of this is the EU Council Regulation № 2271/96 that protected the European companies from the American sanctions against Cuba. Will they be willing to apply the same protection means for their companies that plan to expand trade relations with Iran? There is the possibility that Russia can unite with China and try to join forces with the European parties to the agreement (who are the US’s partners in NATO at the same time) to put pressure on Trump’s administration via available means, but it remains to be seen. Most likely we will see that JCPOA remains on its place but will be practically devalued by the other means taken by the US.
© Institute for Regional Studies, Shahid Beheshti University
Yulia Sveshnikova, a research associate at Higher School of Economics, is the advisor of the PIR Center.
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