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Iran should rejoin the nuclear deal with or without Russia

In response to Western sanctions after the Ukraine invasion, Moscow has turned to the JCPOA talks to seek relief.

Analysis | Middle East

As Iran and the IAEA managed to solve the few remaining continuous factors in ongoing nuclear talks and the prospect for a renewed nuclear deal began to look bright, Russia’s sudden demand for sanctions exemptions has dampened hope the a deal can be reached any time soon.

Linking its support for the deal to a guaranteed right to “free and fully-fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran” in spite of the newly imposed sanctions on it, Iranian officials have been quick to criticize the last minute change especially after that the U.S. government has refused Russia’s demand as irrelevant. So what explains Russia’s change of heart and what does it mean for Tehran?

There are a number of explanations ranging from the effects of the deal on energy prices to the more long term prospect of Iran moving away from Moscow. To be able to avoid further deterioration of its economy and maintain its war efforts, Russia’s interest squarely lies in higher oil prices, and thus any development that could lower prices, however meagre, is to be prevented. A renewed nuclear deal with Iran would do just that. While Iranian oil will not replace that of Russia nor will it, in the short to medium term, reduce the EU’s dependency on the Russian energy, the addition of Iranian resources and Tehran’s ability to sell its oil on the global market freely will certainly reduce prices.

Equally important is Moscow’s fear of losing access to Iran’s lucrative market and the prospect of Tehran’s drifting away from its strategic orbit. Given its dire economic and military needs, Tehran is in no position to be picky about who it trades with or where it sources its needs from. Hence, and in the light of current sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, it is safe to speculate that Russian officials are worried that Iran can be easily dissuaded from working with Russian entities by relatively generous offers of cooperation and investment from Europe.

Added to this is Iran’s wariness of sanctions reimposition on its banking system and its companies should they engage in commercial interactions with their Russian counterparts. This, in turn, will serve a severe blow to Moscow’s attempt at carving an exclusive commercial role for itself in Iran and might even dampen Iranian enthusiasm for the signing of a long term strategic pact.

War in Ukraine, it appears, has provided Iran with an unexpected and indeed unique geopolitical opportunity to reduce its over-reliance on Moscow and accelerate its integration into the global economy by banking on increased Western appetite for isolating Russia, curbing its influence, and, perhaps most importantly, reducing their own reliance on it. Such sentiments are best evidenced in Denmark’s resumption of pipeline construction connecting Poland to Norway, the EU’s courting of Azerbaijan for increased supply of gas to Europe, and the United States’ sudden engagement with Venezuela. 

To grasp this opportunity, Tehran needs to prioritize pragmatism over idealism and push for a deal with or without Russia. Surely, such undertaking will neither be cost free nor easy. Given Moscow’s direct access to key centers of power, including the Supreme Leader’s office in Tehran, its critical role as operator in chief of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and its influence as the dominant player in Syria, Russia has the means and resources to not just avert pragmatic decision making but also punish Iran for pursuing its interests in defiance of Moscow.

Also at play is Ali Khamenei’s own deeply ingrained suspicious of the West as a reliable partner. However, the point remains that Iranian elites have been presented with a random, yet unique, historical opportunity to put national interests above factional politics and ideological sentiments. Whether or not they will seize it and give up on being “a cause” remains to be seen. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Sept 7, 2018 (photo via khamenei.ir).
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