A friend in need: Ukraine crisis bolsters Iran-Russia ties

The tensions between Russia and the West have further ratcheted up this week, since President Vladimir Putin reclaimed Crimea as part of Russia

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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The tensions between Russia and the West have further ratcheted up this week, since President Vladimir Putin reclaimed Crimea as part of Russia and since the Crimean Peninsula’s local government called for a referendum to secede from Ukraine. The current standoff between the West and Moscow concerning Ukraine might be viewed as the gravest instance of tension in the post-Cold War era.

Simultaneously, with this increasing tension between the West and Russia, Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, France, China, Britain and Germany) started their diplomatic negotiations to make headway on the nuclear dispute, which would be a lasting accord permanently resolving the decade-long nuclear standoff and averting the threat of another war in the Middle East.

Since Russia joined the negotiations in Vienna, some Western diplomats and policy analysts have jumped to the conclusion that the U.S.-Russian confrontation is not going to undermine the quest for a final nuclear deal over Iran’s atomic activity or Tehran’s nuclear defiance. The interim nuclear deal expires on July 20 and the P5+1 are aiming to transfer the interim deal into a comprehensive one before this date.

It might be accurate to make the argument that despite the division and discord between the West, Russia and China over the protracted civil war in Syria— and differences over other crucial issues— these countries have been relatively in consensus and shown a united front with regards to Iran’s nuclear activities.

On the other hand, the fact that Russia and China agreed to reconvene for the nuclear talks and hold meetings during the Ukraine crisis does not necessarily mean that the nuances, terms, guidelines and details of the final nuclear deal will not be altered. In other words, the crucial question is whether the U.S.-Russian standoff over the Ukraine crisis will affect the direction of the nuclear talks when it comes to negotiations over the final deal’s details.

If the Russian-West standoff over the Ukraine crisis continues, Moscow is more likely to play the “Iran card” by changing its stance on Iran’s nuclear talks

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

These specifics include the amount of centrifuges that Tehran can retain, the level at which they are allowed to enrich uranium, the preservation of the plutonium reactor in Arak (Fordow) and the scope of the IAEA inspectors with respect to monitoring the military site Parching (where the organization suspects the nuclear test was triggered).

If the Russian-West standoff over the Ukraine crisis continues, Moscow is more likely to play the “Iran card” on Ukraine by changing its stance on Iran’s nuclear talks, in a retaliatory high-stakes gamble to counter sanctions by the United States and the European Union. According to the Interfax news agency, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pointed out that Moscow may have to use the Iranian talks to “raise the stakes,” in response to the actions taken by the United States and the European Union.

Less strict final nuclear deal

The Russian position, and its demands on Iran’s nuclear program, is likely to become less firm. While the Western powers attempt to significantly scale back and reduce Tehran’s centrifuges from approximately 20,000 centrifuges to a few thousand, Moscow has been far more lenient, pointing out that it is willing to accept a final deal with Tehran retaining most of its nuclear infrastructure and keeping even nearly 20,000 centrifuges. Generally, China has followed the Russian position in the nuclear negotiations.

The Ukraine crisis and the Russia-West standoff might not interfere with reaching a final nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1, but the terms of the agreement are likely to be much less strict on Tehran as Russia and the Islamic Republic strengthen ties and feel less pressured to cooperate with or make concessions to the West.

Russia and China (who reluctantly supported the four rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran and later condemned the unilateral sanctions), can now focus more on their own terms and agenda, including building nuclear reactors for Iran. Last week, Iran’s state-run Press TV announced that Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rowhani agreed that Moscow would build two additional nuclear power plants for Tehran and construct new facilities next to Iran’s power plant in the city of Bushehr.

From the Iranian perspective, the Islamic Republic has found a closer ally due to the crisis in Ukraine, stemming from the notion that the West’s paramount goal in the final nuclear talks is to suppress Iran’s nuclear program to a level that removes concerns about Iran’s capability to build an atomic bomb anytime soon. The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany were capable of securing Russian support in the previous talks, particularly in the interim deal.

Realistically speaking, as the America-Russian standoff begins to simmer, the Western powers will find it much more difficult to attain Moscow’s support for the specific terms they wish for in the final nuclear deal. While the Ukraine crisis moves Russian leaders closer to their Iranian counterparts, Tehran will feel less pressure to make concessions, and so the final deal will likely be less strict on Iran’s nuclear activities, the number of centrifuges it can retain and the level of uranium enrichment it can pursue.

Moscow-Beijing-Tehran power pole in the region

As the current Western-Russian tensions continue and due to the geopolitical security interests shared between Russia and Iran, Moscow finds no better geopolitical ally than the Islamic Republic. Several other crucial reasons contribute to these converging geopolitical security interests.

First of all, the Ukrainian crisis makes both Russia and the Islamic Republic much closer due to the convergence of interests and geopolitical objectives between Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in resisting Western hegemony in the Middle East.

Secondly, both Russia and Iran are attempting to establish themselves as key and influential geopolitical and strategic players in the region. The consolidation of Russia’s and Iran’s strategic depth in the area is combined with their shared objective of withstanding the Western powers. Thirdly, Putin and Iranian leaders are attempting to restore their regionally and internationally wounded prestige and pride. From their perspective, the international community lacks respect towards Moscow and Tehran’s influence and power.

One clear example of the convergence of strategic and geopolitical interests between Tehran and Moscow is their attempt to reinforce themselves as influential state actors in the region with the case of Syria. Both countries have significantly ratcheted up the amount of political and economic capital they spend to secure Assad’s stay in power.

As the current Ukrainian crisis continues, Moscow finds a close strategic ally in Tehran as they work to resist the West and retain their strategic depth in the region. In addition, for China, its current interests are to strengthen strategic ties with Moscow and Tehran for security. The Ukraine crisis has moved Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing closer to one another to counterbalance the West and resist Western hegemony, providing a platform for them to create the strategic geopolitical axis in the region.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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