Will the Crisis in Ukraine Damage Negotiations with Iran?

Another round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) took place this week. Word is that all sides feel they’re on the right path to a final deal. You could almost forget that elsewhere in Europe, most of members of the P5+1 group spent the week squaring off over the powder keg of the Ukraine crisis.

Observers are right to be concerned that the situation in Crimea and Ukraine could have a harmful impact on efforts to advance Iran negotiations – but governments compartmentalize their interests every day, even in the face of real crisis. Even during the Cold War, the US was able to usefully engage with the Soviet Union on issues of mutual interest despite the all-too-hot wars being waged by client states around the world.

Much as it may be tempting to believe otherwise, Russia is a rational actor. Whatever its designs on Ukraine, Moscow also has very real interests involving Iran that President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to want to compromise.

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst with the Rand Corporation, recently noted in an interview with reporter Ron Kampeas that Russia is no more interested in a nuclear Iran than anyone else: “Russians don’t want that kind of nuclear proliferation in their neighborhood,” Nader said. “This is a national security issue for them.”

The Wilson Center’s Michael Adler pointed to an additional concern, involving Iran’s proximity to Russia’s southern border and its own Muslim population: “Russia is worried about the expanding influence of fundamentalist Islam in the region, and Iran can be a vector for that. The idea that that vector can become nuclear is totally unacceptable.”

Former Ambassador Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative (a Ploughshares Fund grantee) says that both of these are real issues for Moscow, but also speaks of a larger context.

“Russia does not have an interest in seeing Iran with nuclear weapons,” Pifer said in a phone interview, “[and] the Russians do worry about Tehran’s influence on Russian Muslims.” Furthermore, if talks fail and Israel or the US were to launch an attack on Iran’s facilities – “that would be a very clear signal that Russia didn’t matter.”

“It’s very important to the Russians to be seen at the table.”

Events in Ukraine – not just in the past month, but over the past several years – demonstrate Putin’s desire to return Moscow to the geopolitical center of the world; walking away from Iran talks, arguably the greatest international diplomatic breakthrough since the end of the Cold War, would almost certainly threaten those efforts.

Moreover, though Russia has certainly shown a willingness to play spoiler in the region, as in Syria, Putin would be hard-pressed to do so with Iran. Discussing the sanctions that ultimately brought Tehran to the negotiating table, Pifer notes that the most effective sanctions were imposed by the US and EU outside the United Nations framework through which Russia can wield influence.

“If Russia broke ranks, could they make life easier for the Iranians? Perhaps. But I don’t think they could break down that construct of sanctions that have inflicted pain on Iran.”

Finally, Pifer points to a little remarked facet of all the realpolitik concerns: Tehran is watching Ukraine, too.

“If you look to what a permanent deal in Iran might be, one piece of it could be a security arrangement,” Pifer says. “If the US and Britain are seen as doing too little to back up the assurances made to Ukraine in [the Budapest Memorandums] of 1994” (the instrument by which Ukraine agreed to eliminate all of its nuclear weapons), “that tool won’t be there for us in Iran. Assurances to Tehran aren’t going to be worth much.”

For the time being, Russia has a series of very good reasons to not want to upset the apple-cart of the P5+1 talks. Even if that changes, the Iranians may be much less interested in Russia’s actions than in the West’s response.

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