US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018, has been equally condemned by all the remaining parties: Russia, China, the European Union, and of course Iran. And yet, among all those issued by the P5+1 group which had negotiated the deal, it was the Russian foreign ministry’s statement which stood out for its harsh criticism of Washington’s decision. While both China and Russia as well as the European Union expressed regret over the US’ decision, recalled the importance of preserving the JCPOA for sustaining the global regime of nuclear non-proliferation, and called upon the remaining parties (in particular Iran) to continue to implement the agreement, Moscow went a bit further in reprimanding Washington. Russia emphasized how the US was acting “once again in defiance of the opinions of the majority of states and exclusively out of its own narrow and opportunistic interests while grossly violating international law”, and how the US decision was “a new confirmation of Washington’s intractability”.
Looking at the bigger picture and taking into consideration Russian foreign policy in its entirety, rather than zooming in on Russia-Iran relations, is essential in order to fully understand Moscow’s action, or lack thereof, in preserving the JCPOA. Indeed, Russia’s condemnation of the US decision stems mainly from two factors strictly pertaining to the JCPOA, but also from the desire to counter the US’ unilateral approach to international relations, as reflected in the Russian foreign ministry’s statement. In regard to the JCPOA, Moscow felt the need to protect a diplomatic success it had helped achieve (and which helped reinforce its reputation as a responsible, necessary, power), but also to preserve the limits imposed on Iran’s nuclear program, which Moscow regarded as a source of concern for the stability of the region.
Russia’s calls for Washington to return to the JCPOA, however, have not been substantiated with actual initiatives, even less with actual results. At the end of the day, what has proven to be a difficult task for US allies (despite a number of Macron’s initiatives), was an impossible mission for Russia, or even China, two countries which are currently experiencing tense relations with the US.
Indeed, Russia has partially benefitted from the reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran, especially in the energy sector. The uncertainty about US intentions first and the removal of Iranian oil from the market later have contributed in driving up prices. In the gas sector, too, Washington’s decision has unintentionally benefitted Russia, as it freed Moscow from a potential competitor on the European market. An attached benefit for Moscow has been the opening of a serious rift in the transatlantic alliance, with the Europeans increasingly talking about the need to affirm and protect their sovereignty vis-à-vis Washington’s impositions. Finally, as Iran is increasingly weakened by US ‘maximum pressure’, Moscow may have a relatively easier time in asserting its stance in the regional crises in which Russia and Iran do not see eye to eye. Syria is a case in point, as beyond the façade of Tehran-Moscow alliance, actual divergences run deep.
And yet, as US “maximum pressure” was met with Iranian “maximum resistance”, Russia has been confronted with the unsustainability of the status quo. The risk of military escalation in the Persian Gulf as well as the full resumption of the Iranian nuclear program which is now looming on the horizon all run counter to Russian interests. The difficult mission of saving the JCPOA has thus been turned into the existential undertaking of preventing a further destabilization of an already fragile security environment. In July 2019, the Russian MFA articulated a proposal for a new regional security architecture, built on the premise that keeping Iran in is essential in order to ensure it acts as a responsible stakeholder, while repeated (US-designed) efforts at keeping it out have turned it into a regional spoiler.
However, on this effort too looms the fundamental variable of how much leverage Russia has in order to turn this proposal into a stable, long-term, reality. As two prominent experts have pointed out, turning Iran into a stakeholder rather than a spoiler of regional security requires a combined approach of carrots and sticks. Since the US – with the sole exception of the Obama administration – has been constantly relying exclusively on sticks, “it is now up to Europe, Russia and China to deal with the deficit of carrots”, i.e. to come up with adequate incentives which are appealing to the Iranian leadership. This same line of reasoning applies to the other Gulf countries, as well as Israel, which have been constantly advocating for a containment policy towards Iran: a new regional security structure should be designed so as to include incentives for cooperation for all the countries involved.
Russia, as well as the EU and in some ways China, enjoys good relations with all the countries in the region, and is thus relatively well-positioned to broker a new security concept. The regional US’ allies discomfort with Washington’s lack of action towards Tehran’s increasingly assertive posture – especially the lack of US reaction to the September bombing of Saudi Aramco infrastructures – could provide an opening, as they may realize the inevitability of coming to terms with Iran.
The stakes are increasingly higher. As saving the JCPOA has now turned into averting an escalation and preventing Iran from going nuclear, this could be the testing ground for the widely-praised Russian ability to “talk to all parties” and to act as a mediator in Middle Eastern crises.