by Mark N. Katz
How does Moscow regard the ongoing talks between the P5+1 world powers and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program? The answer is not immediately apparent, as high-level Russian Foreign Ministry officials have made somewhat contradictory statements on this issue.
On Oct. 17, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov appeared pessimistic about the prospects for an agreement when he acknowledged that while advances had been made, “There is a great distance separating the position of the Iranian side and the group,” and that this distance, “is counted in kilometers but the advance is measured by half-meter steps.”
On the very same day, however, the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, offered a different assessment when he described the first round of talks in Geneva as “very positive.”
Two days earlier, an article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant cited unnamed Russian diplomatic sources as “feeling only a cautious optimism” and advising onlookers “not to expect an instantaneous breakthrough.” The article further quoted unnamed Russian experts saying that it is “not only wrong but also dangerous to expect any breakthrough decisions from the Geneva meeting.” To say that an expectation of a positive outcome from these talks might be overly optimistic would be understandable, but everyone involved in them likely realizes this. To say that such expectations are “dangerous,” though, suggests there are those in Moscow who are uncomfortable either with these talks or how they are taking place.
An Oct. 18 article by Oleg Gorbunov on the Russian website, politkom.ru, suggests why. “Russia remains unhappy about the unspecific and highly inscrutable results of the negotiations,” writes Gorbunov, “because the diplomats can see that nobody intends to force Tehran to abandon its weapons.” Western governments involved in the talks would certainly disagree with him on this!
Gorbunov goes on to observe:
It is beneficial for Moscow…to adopt a moderate stance in the negotiations, waiting until either the West gets tired of the process dragging on or the Iranians feel that the negotiations are no longer any use to them. Then the negotiations would become deadlocked, which would enable Moscow to begin [to seize] the initiative, as happened, for example, in the case of a Syria settlement.
It is not at all clear, of course, that if talks between Iran and the West regress into deadlock that Russia will be able to salvage them. Gorbunov’s analysis, though, seems to reflect a Russian fear that the negotiations in Geneva may be less about resolving the Iranian nuclear issue and more about arranging a general rapprochement between Iran and the West that could marginalize Russia’s role in the region. And if insufficient progress on the Iranian nuclear issue forestalls such a rapprochement, then so much the better. Interestingly, this view also suggests that only when Iran and the West are at loggerheads does Moscow see itself as having leverage over them both.