Russia’s Awkward Position on the Iran Nuclear Talks

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,, 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.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at



  1. It is quite clear that Russia is not very happy about rapprochement between Iran and the West because it will deprive her of playing the role of a middleman, as well as putting an end to her monopoly of oil and especially gas supply to Europe. Despite pretensions of friendship with Iran, Moscow voted for Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran because she wishes to keep Iran weak and dependent on her, but if Iran has friendly relations with the West she would not need Russia any more. The same logic applies to the hostility of countries such as Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia to any Iran-US rapprochement.

  2. With all due respect, how does Mr Jahanpour know what’s in the minds of the Russians today? He cites a couple of Russian sources, but they don’t represent what the official Russian position is, nor does he have inside knowledge. Mr Jahanpour is an academic in Britain, but as he has said, he lost everything in the revolution, hasn’t been back since, will never regain what he lost, time doesn’t march backward.

  3. @Norman,

    If you followed Iranian-Russian relations, you would know that Russia has used the Iran-card when they dealt with the West (i.e. US), especially vis-a-vis those planned radar installations in Poland. Not considering the fact that Russia has agreed with sanctions imposed by the UNSC. Let alone the fact that Russia refused to deliver, after an initial agreement, those S-300 air defense missile systems. Plus refusing to overhaul Iran’s Russian-made Kilo submarines, to deliver spare parts for their MiG-29s, etc. Logically, the Russians would like Iran to be diplomatically dependent on their role as middlemen, which worked when Ahmadinejad was in power, but seems to be unsuccessful at the moment since Rouhani is directly negotiating with the US. Naturally, Iran and Russia should be competitors, especially when it comes to gas-exports. Iran could significantly reduce European dependency of Russian gas, and could start to compete with Russia in the Caucasus and (Central) Asia as well.

    It remains to be seen how successful the current negotiations between Iran and the West will be, but if Iran could take away concerns of the US and Europe in correlation to its nuclear program, Iran could merge as a huge energy-ally of Europe.

  4. Mr/Ms Siba, No, I don’t follow Iran-Russia relations. That said, considering that Russia is part of the P-5+1, signed on to the sanctions against Iran, then it’s logical that Russia would withhold the points you brought up. As for the dependency of Russian Gas, well, I believe that issue is in the works to be solved. If the story is correct, that the Eastern Mediterranean holds ginormous cubic feet of gas, then it’s only a short matter of time before it’s piped to Europe. Perhaps the big question there is, who will control it and who will profit from it too?

  5. I think Russia is sincere in seeking a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear dispute. Avoiding war. And ensuring Iran does not build nukes or get too close to ability to build nukes quickly.

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