It took Iran, the EU, and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – plus Germany) around nine years of formal negotiations to sign the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for the Iranian nuclear programme, commonly known as the “Iran deal”; it could take much less time and effort to undo it. Since he went into politics, Donald Trump has been claiming that the US should withdraw from the deal. In January, the US President agreed to waive the US sanctions on Iran for another two months, therefore complying with his obligations, but he also said it would be the last time and threatened to impose new sanctions unless the deal’s “disastrous flaws” are fixed. The other parties involved built up a united front to defend the benchmark of an historical bargaining. In particular, Russia’s foreign minister has condemned Trump’s “regrettable” attempt to change the deal. Russia’s bold opposition speaks to its strategic interest in saving the Iran deal. Indeed, failure to do so is likely to have negative spillovers on other Russia’s diplomatic endeavours – chiefly, but not solely, in Syria.
How serious is Trump’s threat?
US threats to the nuclear deal fall into a more general attempt to curtail Teheran’s ability to play an assertive role in the region. In return for the lift of the Western sanctions, Iran agreed to develop an exclusively peaceful nuclear programme, which is subject to the regular monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Under Trump’s rule, the US is trying to modify the text of the agreement to include clauses that were not negotiated upon and that are unacceptable for Iran. For example, the US is demanding the IAEA’s access to any Iranian facility on first request and the stop to the development of ballistic missiles. More generally, the US also claims that Iran should stop interfering in the affairs of neighbouring countries and uphold human rights at home. Iran’s expanding regional presence and renewed confidence have notably grown together with Washington and Israel’s anxiety – which is why the US is flashing warning lights on Iran’s actions elsewhere in an attempt to prove the unreliability of its commitment within the deal. While, on the one hand, the ‘P5-plus-1 group’ is unwilling to buy into these claims, on the other, the US’ commitment is deemed crucial for the deal’s survival, as Lavrov declared.
What’s at stake for Russia?
Saving the Iran deal ranks high on Russia’s diplomatic to-do-list, as the issue overlaps with other strategic diplomatic endeavours undertaken by Moscow in the region and beyond. First of all, while Russia enjoys good relations with Tehran, it is not interested in a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern doorstep and, in general, it wants to avoid nuclear proliferation in the highly volatile Middle East region.
The stability of the Rouhani government matters for Russia’s strategy in Syria, too. Militarily, Moscow has to rely on the ground upon Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and Iran-backed Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias; politically, though, Putin needs Rouhani as a moderate partner with whom to achieve an extremely difficult political solution to the crisis. Rouhani, however, faces constant attacks from the most conservative sectors of the society, including the Revolutionary Guards. These hardliners are critical of the nuclear deal and share deep anti-Western sentiments; the suspension of the deal and new Iran sanctions would feed into their criticism and further weaken Rouhani’s position at home, given that his recent re-election owed a great deal to his promises of economic opportunities linked to the deal. Therefore, political instability in Iran could jeopardise the regular political and military cooperation that Russia set up with Iran and Turkey, which was a major diplomatic achievement for Putin. A political strengthening of the Revolutionary Guards would also exacerbate Israel’s concerns on the role of Iran in Syria. In a careful balancing between its regional alliances, Russia is trying not to upset Israel, with whom it enjoys, despite some geostrategic differences, solid diplomatic and trade relations.
Furthermore, the deal is an essential piece in the construction of Russia’s image as a peace-broker in international relations. Russia has been investing considerable diplomatic resources in the achievement of an acceptable solution that would allow Moscow to improve relations with Iran while containing its nuclear policy. In early 2006, Russia held bilateral negotiations with Iran and came out with a proposal, backed by other UN Security Council members –including the US – that would have allowed Iran to obtain enriched uranium for civilian use directly from Russia. The proposal was not successful in the end, but it highlighted Russia’s diplomatic ambitions. After that, in June 2006, Russia, China, and the US formally joined the three EU-3 countries (France, Germany, and the UK) that had been negotiating with Iran since 2003.
The defence of the current Iran deal also plays into Russia’s anti-US discourse, at a time when Russia-US relations reached an all-time low since the end of the Cold War, despite Trump’s initial hopes of building a “fantastic relationship” with Russia. Lavrov has indeed argued that Washington is acting as an unreliable player, whose actions are destabilising the Middle East, Ukraine and the Korean peninsula, directly linking a suspension of the Iran Deal to a failure to achieve a future nuclear deal with North Korea. Defending the deal, thus, reinforces the Kremlin-backed narrative of Russia as a stabilising power against Trump’s revisionism and interference in other states’ internal affairs.
Acting together with the EU
Voices claiming that the EU and Russia should fix their confrontational relationship for economic reasons are quite widespread. It is far less common, though, to imagine a possible convergence of Brussels and Moscow based on principles. The defence of the Iran deal could offer a chance for the EU and Russia to fight a common diplomatic battle.
Russia’s cooperation with Iran in Syria and its manifest policy of non-interference in Iran’s domestic politics make Moscow a privileged interlocutor for Teheran and an instrumental partner for the EU in defending the deal. As a matter of fact, contrary to the US, the EU has not made regime change in Iran a patent objective of its policy. Yet, Iranian political elites are more likely to regard Brussels with more suspicion than Russia, with which Iran shares a similar worldview and an illiberal model of political organisation. In the framework of the P5+1 negotiations, Russia could find common ground with France and Germany – the second and third largest European trade partners for Iran in 2017, respectively – who have shown their resolution in preserving the agreement.
Moscow – despite its initial opposition to the Iran sanctions – eventually acquiesced in and supported the West’s recipe to tackle Iran’s nuclear ambitions; it also contributed to having China on board, showing a constructive and collaborative attitude. While it is unlikely that the EU will alter its stance on Ukraine (and eventually lift the sanctions) because of Russia's cooperation on Iran, being perceived by the EU as a collaborative actor remains a much-needed asset in Russia's limited toolbox to fix its relationship with the EU.