Russia, Sanctions, and Politics in Iran

by Paul Pillar*

The crisis over Crimea has naturally raised questions about possible effects of this disturbance on other issues and specifically ones that depend on U.S.-Russian cooperation. This includes the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov raised eyebrows with a comment this week about how dealings with Iran may be an area where his government would look for possible options in responding to Western sanctions against Russia.

So far there is no indication of a change in Russian policies regarding Iran. This is not surprising. Russia is geographically closer to Iran than are any of its negotiating partners in the Vienna talks, and if there were to be any threat from an Iranian nuclear weapon—prevention of which is a main purpose of the negotiations—Russia would be at least as vulnerable as any of the others. Putin’s government also can openly accept that it would be in Russia’s interests as well as Iran’s for the two countries to have a full and normal relationship. Putin can do so because unlike in the United States, whose interests also would be well served by a full and normal relationship of its own with Iran, he does not have strong domestic political elements dedicated to keeping relations with Iran perpetually bad.

Moscow does have, however, an option for using the Iran issue to show displeasure with the West without harming (and maybe even helping) the prospects for reaching an agreement with Iran. That option would be to reach new trade deals, either civilian or military, with Tehran. Besides being in Russia’s economic interests, such transactions would be well-suited symbolically as an anti-sanctions gesture in the face of sanctions against Russia itself.

If Russia were to move in this direction, there of course would be in the United States moans of disapproval and dismay about how the anti-Iran sanctions regime was in danger of falling apart. Such dismay would come partly from those who honestly but mistakenly believe that getting the desired concessions out of Tehran is all a matter of pressuring Iran, and that more pressure through economic sanctions is always good and less pressure is always bad. The mistaken belief comes from apparent ignorance of a historical record that does not really support the catechism that “sanctions brought Iran to the table.” It also comes from failure to understand that the other side’s confidence that pressure will stop if desired concessions are made is just as important as the belief that pressure won’t stop if the concessions aren’t made.

Expressions of disapproval and dismay also would come from those who oppose any agreement with Iran and precisely for that reason have been pushing for piling on still more sanctions at inopportune times. Expressions from that quarter, such as from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have already begun over the mere possibility of what the Russians might do.

Those who want, for whatever reason, to keep harsh sanctions against Iran in place for now can relax. The big, debilitating sanctions involving banking and oil are still in place, and U.S. actions have far more to do with keeping them in place than anything Russia can do unilaterally. The Treasury Department is very good at the sanctions enforcement business. It is so scarily good that even relaxations of the sanctions regime on the periphery have little practical effect because anybody who might want to take advantage of such relaxation usually has no way of moving the necessary money around if they cannot persuade any banks, fearful of being penalized by Treasury, to handle the transactions. This is probably true, for example, of a recently issued general license to permit academic exchanges between Iran and the United States.

Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations at this point. What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter—and that includes more than those at the negotiating table—that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek.

Any failure to understand all this is a failure to understand that there are real politics in Tehran, which means factions with different views and objectives contending for power and seeing their influence rise and fall with policy successes and failures. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has much at stake with the economic consequences of the nuclear issue. He was elected last year by people who placed in him high hopes for economic improvement. He has managed so far to clean up somewhat the problems left by his predecessor, which are due partly to economic mismanagement as well as to the sanctions. But Rouhani needs to show a lot more improvement, and fairly soon, or else he will be a lame duck for the rest of his term. He and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are as good as it’s going to get as far as Iranian interlocutors for the West are concerned. If they come to be seen as failures the alternatives will be worse.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has a different perspective and different position but has to deal at one remove with some of the same realities. His views toward the West are far more unreconstructed than Rouhani’s and in some respects even despicable. His very pessimistic pronouncements about the negotiations are partly an effort to separate himself from possible failure but also partly a genuinely strong suspicion about Western and especially U.S. motives. Khamenei is not a dictator, however, and that is part of what it means to have real politics in Tehran. He cannot ignore the economic problems and the views about them that put Rouhani into office. He can talk about self-reliance and say sanctions be damned, but he surely knows that such lectures are an insufficient palliative.

If the negotiations were to fail—tragically, given what has been achieved so far—it would not be because of anything the Russians, annoyed about reactions to Crimea, might do, and it won’t be because of a weakening of sanctions. It would be because of the efforts of hardliners elsewhere, including in the United States as well as Iran, to kill the prospects for an agreement, with the hardliners in each place playing off each other.

More specifically, it might be that given the influence of the hardliners, the U.S. position in particular would remain too inflexible to make it possible for the Iranians to make further concessions. One Western official summed up well what is most needed now in the negotiations:

The greater power has to bend. We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we’re serious. It’s alarming that this seems out of our ability today.

*This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.

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  1. An excellent analysis! The effect of the new US-Russian Cold War on Iran’s nuclear negotiations is very complex and it can go either way. Some Iranians have argued that Russia’s spat with the West will encourage Russia to cooperate more with Iran in order to spite the West. On the other hand, others have argued that the West may get closer to Iran in order to turn her against Russia. A third group believes that the United States may adopt a harsher approach towards Iran and Syria in order to get at Russia. Many Iranians are aware of these problems and have warned the officials that Ukraine is a geopolitical dispute between Russia and the West and Iran should remain neutral in the whole affair.

    At the moment, the biggest game in Iranian foreign policy is to resolve the nuclear dispute with the West and to have sanctions lifted. They would be foolish to jeopardize the success of the talks by provoking the West as the result of getting close to Russia. However, the long-term outcome of the new Western sanctions on Russia may be to force the BRICS to get closer together and devise a new financial and banking system that does not rely so much on Western whims. There have already been moves towards that direction, and if that trend gets stronger US sanctions on Iran would lose much of their force. This is why regardless of US-Russian relations it is in everyone’s interest to continue with nuclear talks in good faith and lift the sanctions on Iran.

  2. Who was the Western official who said that?

    Another view of how the Neocons in this country are failing the people, due to blind loyalty to preserving a foreign country’s mad leader. Damn be to what is good for the World Peace, it’s all about dancing with the other inmates of the asylum. They should be careful about pushing Russia, who either they underestimated, or are playing into the hands of a more sinister event.

  3. Your second and third paragraphs indicate what Russia could do- e.g., more trade and closer military relations. Furthermore, it could ignore sanctions entirely and, if negotiations break down, support Iran with its nuclear program much more aggressively- it has already signed contracts to sell Iran two new reactors- and frankly, if the U.S. were to engage in a financial war with more extensive sanctions- this time against Russia as well as Iran- it could, in the end, be cutting off its nose to spite its face, since the BRICs countries are seeking a way out of the dollar and this would add one more incentive to do so sooner rather than later. (Right now there is a race going on against the TTP and TTIP, which are also tied to the currency issue- and I notice that China has signed an agreement with New Zealand, one of the prospective TPP members to be able to trade with each other in their own currencies. In other words those countries excluded from those treaties, e.g., Russia and China are already taking steps to avoid the treaties’ negative effects, and closer relations with Iran might be one such step.)

    Furthermore, if Israel were to follow through on its threats and attack Iran, it would be inviting a costly response, not so much against its populated areas (where Bibi seems obscenely willing to incur a cost in lost Israeli lives), but in a well targeted missile attack against the whole of its Leviathan and Tamar projects in the Eastern Mediterranean, projects on which it is expecting to gain market share with the EU countries, and financial independence, including from the U.S., to finance its own imperial aspirations. In some sense, losing these wells would also serve US interests by keeping Israel highly dependent upon it, though that would only make a difference if the Israelis were not so influential over our lawmakers.

  4. Fine piece. Russia and the US clearly need to continue to seek a deal between P5+1 and Iran. And, should one expect the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to seek democracy in Palestine? And an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

  5. This pretty much answers all the possibilities: Financial aspect of the whole situation for the WEST. By Jim Sinclair

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