Why Russia Hasn’t Played Spoiler to the Iran Nuclear Talks

by Mark N. Katz

U.S.-Russian relations have sharply deteriorated, to put it mildly, over Ukraine in recent months. There has been widespread talk about the re-emergence of a new Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Indeed, some have even argued that Moscow does not want to see American sanctions on Iran lifted because this would allow Iran to compete with Russia in exporting petroleum to the West and elsewhere. Yet Russia appears willing to cooperate with the U.S. on several issues, including the Iranian nuclear file. What could explain Moscow’s reasoning? At least four possible explanations stand out.

1) The government of President Vladimir Putin is willing to compartmentalize foreign policy issues. Dramatic disagreement with the U.S. on some issues does not preclude Moscow from cooperating with Washington on others where common interests are involved. Both the U.S. and Russia — as well as many other states — want to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, so it makes sense for Moscow to continue working with Washington in pursuit of this aim.

2.) Moscow is working toward a settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue in part to both limit and ameliorate international opposition toward Russian policy vis-à-vis Ukraine. There are quite a few governments that are far more concerned about the prospect of a nuclear Iran than about what Russia does in Ukraine. These include Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even some West European members of NATO. Moscow’s continued serious efforts toward a settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue may provide these states with a convenient rationale to avoid joining U.S.-led efforts to criticize Putin over Ukraine.

3) Moscow’s actual ability to scuttle a nuclear agreement with Iran might be limited. Washington and Tehran, of course, have never lacked reasons for disagreeing with each other in the past. But if a final agreement between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear program is indeed attainable, neither of these states is going to back away from it at Moscow’s behest. Indeed, any Russian effort to prevent a nuclear accord reached by Iran on the one hand and America and its European partners on the other could backfire and result in Moscow looking weak and ineffective — exactly what Putin wants to avoid.

4.) Finally, Russia could make substantial profits following a final nuclear deal with Iran. While it is true that a final agreement and the reduction (if not elimination) of U.S. and international sanctions against Tehran would mean increased competition from Iran for Russia in exporting petroleum, reduced UN sanctions on Iran would allow Russian firms to invest more in the Iranian petroleum sector. Indeed, just like the Shi’a majority government that the U.S. helped bring to power in Baghdad, Tehran may actually see doing business with Russian petroleum firms as advantageous. A wealthier Iran would also be able to purchase far more nuclear reactors, weapons, and other goods from Russia than it can pay for now.

Of course, these explanations are not mutually exclusive. Moscow may continue to work toward a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue for any or all of the reasons listed above. Moscow’s unwillingness to cooperate with Washington on Ukraine, then, does not mean that Russia will stop cooperating with America on Iran.

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Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center) share a laugh at the signing ceremony of the interim nuclear deal reached with Iran on Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland.

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 www.marknkatz.com



  1. I think Russia (and China) want a deal between P5+1 and Iran, and they want to ensure Iran does not build nukes. Sensible viewpoint.

  2. One has to ask why the western [U.S.] Russian profileers seem to see the boogieman all the time, but never seem to get it right?

  3. Should there be a final agreement between Iran and United States, and should it be a fair agreement and not a mere loosening of some but not all or most of the choke points of trade, Iran would be the superhighway to central Asia, a market of 320 million people.

    Iran is a gateway with its highways; railroad and Persian Gulf ports, a developed financial and industrial sector as well. Oil and gas could flow out to Europe, India and SE Asia, goods and services transit in towards Iran and central Asia. How this would impact Russia and its power and position? It remains to be seen and it depends heavily on how the West plays its cards and in view of some, goodwill can go a long ways.

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