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Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

A tough US and European response to a Russian attack on Ukraine could ultimately lead to a cozier Russo-Iranian relationship.

Analysis | Middle East

Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions in its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia's ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia's balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

"The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future," Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution's slogan of "neither East nor West." The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

This article has been republished with permission from James M. Dorsey.

Ebrahim Raisi Banner is hung in June 2021 ahead of recent elections. (Farzad Frames/Shutterstock)
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