by Hamidreza Azizi
In May 2018, when former US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he called it a weak and ‘defective’ agreement that would allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons in a short period of time. Another major criticism raised by Trump and senior officials in his administration was that the deal did not cover Iran’s ‘destabilising behaviour’, including its rapidly developing missile programme and regional activities. Six months into Joe Biden’s presidency, and the situation has not really changed. Despite its expressed desire to revive the JCPOA, the new US administration is yet to formally join the deal by removing the sanctions re-imposed on Iran under Trump. At the same time, like their predecessors, Biden administration officials consider the JCPOA insufficient to address all concerns about Iran, and emphasise the need for a ‘comprehensive agreement’ that would also address the latter’s missile programme and regional issues.
Meanwhile, in more than three years since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Russia has maintained a persistent approach to the issue. Throughout Trump’s tenure, Moscow criticised Washington’s policy of applying maximum pressure and increasing sanctions against Tehran, while at several points announcing its readiness to mediate between Iran and the US. Similarly, Moscow now supports Iran’s position, stressing that the US, as the party that withdrew from the deal, should take the first step and resume its JCPOA commitments. Concurrently, Russian officials warn that excessive demands from the US and its Western allies could jeopardise the JCPOA’s revival.
However, not only has Moscow never opposed the idea of reducing tensions between Tehran and Washington via comprehensive diplomacy, it seems ready to help facilitate such a process. Besides, given that Russia is a party to the JCPOA and also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), one can expect it to be somehow involved in any future diplomatic track between Iran and the international community. Thus, it appears necessary to understand Russia’s possible approach to a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Generally speaking, the following three main factors determine Moscow’s approach to this issue: international law, regional balance of power, and objective interests.
The first factor, international law, determines Russia’s view towards the prioritisation and sequencing of topics in any comprehensive agreement with Iran. Like Iran, Russia is often portrayed as a revisionist state whose ultimate goal is to overthrow the existing international order and replace it with a new one. However, Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, points out in his book Russia against the Rest that Russian revisionism is directed primarily towards practices of the current international system, not its principles. While criticising American unilateralism and exceptionalism, Russia, as a permanent UNSC member, considers itself one of the founders of the post-Cold War international system and emphasises the need to respect international law, international treaties, and multilateralism. In this vein, Russian officials have consistently hailed the JCPOA as a successful example of multilateral diplomacy and a step toward strengthening the international non-proliferation regime. At the same time, they see Washington’s maximum pressure policy and its non-compliance with the Iran nuclear deal as a clear example of US neglect of international regulations, which could ultimately weaken the international system as a whole and jeopardise international peace and security. Thus, from Moscow’s point of view, the first step for any comprehensive diplomatic process with Iran is the US’ return to its JCPOA commitments and the revival of this multilateral agreement. Only then, after proving itself as a responsible and committed international actor, can the US call for negotiations on other issues. Thus, it could be said that when it comes to diplomacy with Iran, Russia pursues a policy of ‘JCPOA first’.
The second factor determines the format and structure of diplomacy with Iran and pertains primarily to Russia’s concern over a potential change in the regional balance of power in the Middle East, specifically due to Iran’s weakening position. Indeed, the main reason for Moscow’s support for Western efforts to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran comes down to considerations regarding nuclear proliferation, especially in Russia’s neighbourhood. However, another important reason is Russia’s concern that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could drastically shift the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favour, which in turn could spread panic among Iran’s neighbours and lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Similarly, Russia is now concerned that pressuring Iran to abandon its symmetric and asymmetric means of defense, namely its missile programme and non-state regional allies, could drastically shift the balance of power to Iran’s detriment and in favour of the US-allied Arab states. For this reason, Russia believes that any diplomatic track involving Iran and other states of the region should come as a result of direct contact and dialogue between them and not from Western pressure. In an ideal scenario, such a process would lead to the establishment of a regional security system that is based on reciprocal concessions and security guarantees. The Russian proposal for ‘collective security in the Persian Gulf’ could be seen in this context.
Finally, the third factor, ‘objective interests’, determines the scope of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Unlike the West and some Arab states, Russia does not see the development of Iran’s conventional military capabilities as a threat to its interests. It actually seeks to gain economic benefits by cooperating with Iran in this field, thereby also expanding its strategic influence in the country. In 2020, Russia’s strong objection to the extension of the arms embargo on Iran can be better understood in this context. Similarly, the activities of Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon do not pose a threat to Russia’s objective interests, and Moscow is, therefore, reluctant to put pressure on Iran to stop supporting those groups. The only exception may be Syria, where Russia’s efforts to establish a centralised, Russia-oriented military and security structure contradict Iran’s attempts to expand and strengthen its proxy network. As such, it seems unrealistic to expect Russia to join the West in pressuring Iran to limit or halt its missile programme and regional activities.
Although Russia sees diplomacy as the only reliable way to reduce tensions between Iran and the US and its allies, the bottom line is that it disagrees with Western powers on the means and methods of achieving this ultimate goal. What the United States could expect from Russia is to use its positive relations with all countries in the Middle East to push them toward a framework for dialogue. However, for the reasons mentioned above, it does not seem realistic to expect Moscow to cooperate fully with Washington in this regard.
This is part of a series on the challenges and opportunities facing the Russian-Iranian partnership in the Middle East, based on contributions from participants in a closed LSE workshop in April 2021. Read the introduction here, and see the other pieces below.
In this series:
- The Russian-Iranian Partnership in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities by Ghoncheh Tazmini
- Russia’s Middle East Policy and View of the Post-Cold War Global Order by Viacheslav Morozov
- Drivers of Russia’s Middle East Policy by Diana Galeeva
- Russia and Iran’s Relations in Iraq by Arman Mahmoudian
- Russia and Iran in Syria: Military Allies or Competitive Partners? by Samuel Ramani
- The Post-Blockade Gulf: Prospects for Relations with Iran? The Russian Role by Courtney Freer
- Russia’s Role in Brokering a Comprehensive Agreement between the United States and Iran by Hamidreza Azizi
- Russia and the Issue of a New Security Architecture for the Persian Gulf by Nikolay Kozhanov