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FM Zarif to Russia : State of Relations

Mark N. Katz

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will visit Russia on April 22 for a ministerial meeting of Caspian Sea countries. What is the status of relations between Tehran and Moscow?
      Moscow and Tehran have long appeared to have good relations but they are, in fact, often contentious. Iran values Russia’s role in tempering Western demands about its nuclear program and on other issues. At the same time, the Islamic Republic does not want to be drawn into defending Russia in the tense dispute over Ukraine, which pits Russia against the United States and Europe.
     Ironically, Moscow’s relations with Washington and the West today are worse than Tehran’s. Russia is actually concerned about losing influence in Iran, both because of President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate tone on foreign policy and international tensions since the Crimea crisis erupted in February 2014.
On what issues do they collaborate? On what issues are they divided?
      Moscow and Tehran are often divided over the very issues on which they collaborate. 
      One of the biggest problems, for example, has been Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Russia was instrumental in completing the Bushehr reactor, but the long-delayed opening as well as numerous contract disputes became sources of tension. 
      Moscow has been helpful to Iran in delaying or limiting sanctions introduced by the West at the U.N. Security Council since 2006. But Tehran has also been annoyed that Russia voted to approve four resolutions that it could have vetoed. 
            Moscow has been an important arms supplier for Iran, but Tehran has been unhappy about the limits to cooperation. Tehran was furious in 2010 when Moscow canceled the S-300 air defense missile systems sold to Iran—even though Tehran had already paid for them. 
      Moscow and Tehran have been especially divided over how to draw the maritime boundaries in the Caspian Sea, an issue that will be discussed during the April 22 ministerial meeting. Given the failure of past meetings to make progress, prospects for this round are no better.
      One issue on which Moscow and Tehran have agreed is Syria. Both have supported the Assad regime’s campaign against the uprising launched in 2011. 
What is Russia’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program? What role has it played in the latest rounds of diplomacy?
            Moscow does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but it traditionally has not been as concerned as Washington. Moscow is far more concerned about maintaining and building Russia’s economic relationship with Tehran, especially in the area of petroleum, atomic energy and weaponry.
            Moscow fears a nuclear accord will improve Iranian-American relations, and that Tehran may then have less need for Russia for trade or as an ally. 
What is Iran’s stance on the unrest in Ukraine? And on Russia’s actions?
            The Iranian reaction to events in Crimea and Ukraine has been mixed. Some Iranian leaders have complained that the West is bullying Russia, while others warned about the general dangers of separatism, an issue about which Iran also feels vulnerable. Iran did not show up for a vote at the United Nations on Resolution 68/39 declaring that the Crimea referendum in March about joining Russia was invalid. Iran was one of 24 states that was absent for the vote. Events in Ukraine are not central to Iranian foreign policy. Tehran certainly does not want the Ukrainian crisis to jeopardize nuclear negotiations with the world’s six major powers.
Has the Iran-Russia relationship changed since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August 2013? If so, how?
            Before Rouhani’s election, Moscow hoped to play the role of mediator between Iran and the West, thus making Russia important for both sides. But the improved atmosphere between Iran and the West since Rouhani took office has lessened the need for Russian mediation. Even Iran and the United States can—and have had—direct talks with each other.
Mark N. Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Click here for his chapter on Iran-Russia relations.

Photo credits: President.ir


The Russia and China Factors in Sanctions


Mark N. Katz
What role is Russia playing - helper or hinderer – in international diplomatic efforts on Iran, and why?
The major Western powers now view Moscow as hindering their efforts to squeeze Iran. Between 2006 and 2011, Russia agreed to six U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran over its failure to comply with the international community on its controversial nuclear program. But Moscow went along with each resolution only after Western powers agreed to less stringent sanctions than initially proposed. The level of cooperation has eroded in recent months, however. One reason that the United States, Britain and Canada imposed new unilateral sanctions on Iran on Nov. 21 was that it could not get Russia (or China) to back further punitive action at the United Nations.
Moscow, in turn, views Western pressure to cooperate on new sanctions as creating unnecessary risks for Russia’s relations with Tehran. In recent years, Iran has been helpful to Russia on several sensitive foreign policy issues. Moscow is specifically grateful for Tehran’s cooperation in ending the Tajik civil war in 1997 and for its restrained position on the separatist rebellions in Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim republics inside Russia’s North Caucasus region. In the past, both countries have also opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan (though Iran’s relationship with it more recently has been somewhat ambiguous)
Like other U.N. Security Council members, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions.  And Russian leaders are reportedly annoyed with Tehran for relying on Moscow to block additional sanctions—for little cooperation or payoff in return. Yet Moscow views this issue differently than Western governments do.
“Russia also considers a nuclear Iran to be a very unpleasant and undesirable development of events, but not as catastrophic as the Americans see it” observed Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Tehran’s potential opportunities to create problems in the Russian sphere of interests are great.” 
What role is China playing - helper or hinderer – in international diplomatic efforts on Iran, and why?
China has taken the same position as Russia on the U.N. resolutions. In the past, it too pressed to have them watered down before agreeing to either support or not veto the resolutions. Today, Beijing also does not support new sanctions on Iran. It sees little incentive in cooperating with moves by the United States, Britain, France and Germany. In fact, Western sanctions have contributed to a dramatic increase in Iranian trade with—and economic dependence on—China. 
What are the common denominators in the Russian and Chinese strategies, and how much do they coordinate their positions?
Up until now, Russia and China have taken similar positions about U.N. sanctions and how far they should go. Their interests have been similar so far, although how much Moscow and Beijing actually coordinate their efforts is unclear.  The United States and other Western nations now fear that Russia and China are effectively encouraging Tehran to believe that Moscow and Beijing will shield Iran from further sanctions.  At the same time, both countries want Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Russia had hoped that Western sanctions might actually increase Russian-Iranian trade as an alternative.  But while Russian-Iranian commerce did grow to about $4 billion in 2010—ironically about the same size as trade between Russia and Israel—this is dwarfed by Chinese-Iranian trade, which was approximately $28 billion in 2010. (Some analysts estimate that China’s trade with Iran may be ten times the volume of commerce between Russia and Iran.)
What does this mean for further action at the UN Security Council? And for U.S. policy, especially after the new report by IAEA.

For Russian strategists, the West’s obsession with sanctioning Iran over the nuclear issue appears to be counter-productive.  They also view Western insistence on imposing further sanctions as either naïve or sinister—or both.  In the past, Moscow occasionally found it useful to go along with the West, although often after long delays. The Russian calculation was that imposing sanctions against Tehran might elicit concessions for Russia from the West or Iran--or both.  But Moscow is unlikely to support more serious sanctions that it views as unlikely to change Iranian nuclear policies but which will generate more problems for Russia and potentially benefit China at the expense of everyone else.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.


Russia’s New Diplomatic Idea for Iran

Mark N. Katz
  • During a visit to the United States in mid-July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov presented the Obama administration with a plan for "step by step" nuclear talks with Iran. What is new about the Russian initiative?
Foreign Minister SergeiLavrov’s “step by step” approach to nuclear talks with Iran is a more lenient initiative than the one that the 5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) has pursued so far.  Basically, Lavrov has called for Iran to separately address each concern of the International Atomic Energy Agency concerns, starting with the easier ones and moving on to the harder ones.  Each step Iran takes to resolve a specific concern will be rewarded by some existing sanctions being frozen and/or their application curtailed.

  • How does the new “step by step” plan differ from previous diplomatic offers?
The 5+1 approach has been to call upon Tehran to take the steps set forth by the IAEA for Iran to reassure the international community that its atomic energy program is not aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons, and to impose progressively stronger sanctions on Tehran for not doing so.  The Russian “step by step” approach, by contrast, does not call for increased sanctions against Iran for non-cooperation with the IAEA, but reduced sanctions for Iranian cooperation with it instead.  In terms of the familiar carrot-and-stick metaphor, Lavrov’s approach reduces the stick.
  • Why is Russia pushing for renewed negotiations now?
Lavrov made clear in early 2011 that Moscow no longer sees the policy of increasing sanctions on Iran for non-compliance on the nuclear issue as productive--and that Russia would no longer support it.  Moscow’s position may be partly motivated by the Russian perception that increased U.N. sanctions against Iran would also hurt Russian economic interests, since Russia (unlike the United States) now has a significant economic relationship with Iran.  At the same time, however, Moscow wants to preserve the improved Russian-American relationship that has grown since the Obama Administration took office and “reset” its policy toward Russia. 
  • What is Russia doing to encourage Iran to cooperate?
Lavrov has invited Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Moscow to discuss the “step by step” approach.  Presumably, Moscow hopes to persuade Tehran that the Russian “step by step” approach of reducing sanctions in response to Iranian compliance with the IAEA is more advantageous for Iran than the current policy, backed by the United States, of increasing sanctions to Iranian non-compliance. 
Moscow may also hope to preserve—or even expand—its economic interests in Iran if it can get Tehran to agree to the new Russian initiative. Moscow can argue that it is the best way for Tehran to yield on the nuclear issue but preserve its dignity and potentially gain economically in the process.
  • What are the prospects that Russian efforts will make headway with Iran when past diplomatic efforts have failed?
The Iranian response to Lavrov’s “step by step” initiative has been mixed.  Foreign Minister Salehi welcomed the general approach, but called for more specifics. Key members of the Iranian parliament (majles), however, have already dismissed it. 
Alaeddin Boroujerdi (head of the majles committee on National Security and Foreign Policy) praised Russia’s attitude, but argued that Tehran has been fully cooperative with the IAEA already and so the IAEA should announce that the Iranian nuclear case is closed. Mohammad Karami-Rad, another parliamentarian, dismissed the Russian idea as an attempt “to pave the way for the West’s interests.” 
Iranians are suspicious of Russian-American collaboration against Tehran because Lavrov announced his initiative while meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington and she did not oppose.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s position has combined the positive response of the Foreign Ministry and the negative reaction from some lawmakers.  He welcomed the Russian “step by step” approach, but claimed that Iran has already taken positive steps to which the West should respond.  In his now weakened political condition, however, Ahmadinejad is unlikely to be able to take the steps needed (even if he wanted to) for Russia to convince the five other world powers to freeze sanctions against Iran. 
Tehran is likely to try and avoid making any meaningful concessions while saying the minimum necessary to allow Moscow to claim its “step by step” approach is working--even though the Russians may realize that it is not. The regime’s goal is to give the Russians enough so that the Kremlin will act to block further U.N. sanctions against Iran. 


Read Mark Katz's chapter on Iran and Russia in “The Iran Primer” 

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.
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Russia Balks at New Pressure on Iran

Mark N. Katz
        After a year of cooperation on Iran, Russia now opposes new sanctions or other tough measures to pressure Tehran on its controversial nuclear program. The failure of recent diplomacy to get Iran to comply with U.N. resolutions, and reassure the world that it is not secretly trying to build a bomb, has triggered growing questions about what the international community should do next. Moscow now appears to be a major obstacle in forging a united position.

        The Obama administration “reset” Russian-American relations shortly after taking office in 2009, in part to win Moscow’s support on Iran.  The diplomatic initiative appeared to be working well in 2010. Russia was one of six major powers--along with Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States--that collaborated on both diplomacy and a new U.N. sanctions resolution. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also announced that Russia would not ship S-300 air defense missile systems to Tehran--even after Iran paid for them. 

        But in 2011, Russia is now urging restraint on new punitive measures against Tehran. Moscow’s unwillingness to pressure Iran any further is taking Kremlin policy back to the pre-reset days. Medvedev has also questioned Western intelligence assessments about Iran’s nuclear program. Reverting to Russia’s earlier position, he said there is no proof that Tehran seeks to acquire the world’s deadliest weapons.  Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has even suggested that the time has come to ease sanctions.

        Two developments may have contributed to Russia’s policy shift.  The first was the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as “New START.”  For Moscow, the New START treaty was a high priority.  With Russia not modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal as fast as the United States, Moscow was desperate to get Washington to agree to the limits imposed by New START. Moscow would have been unable to match the American strategic nuclear arsenal without a pact.  Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the treaty in April 2010, but Senate ratification was in doubt over Republican concerns about Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, support for Iran, and other issues.  After Senate ratification in December 2010, Moscow’s incentive to appease the Republican minority decreased--at least for now.

        The second factor is related to the democratic uprisings across the Middle East in 2011.  Moscow did not seem concerned by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in January.  Nor was it unduly upset by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.  But when serious opposition to the regime of Moammar Qaddafi erupted in Libya, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began opposing the Middle East upheavals.  Medvedev even suggested that the uprisings were instigated to trigger similar upheavals in Russia and even to break up the Russian federation.

        Moscow has also publicly backed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the Green Movement protests launched after the disputed presidential election in 2009.  Indeed, Russia was the first major power to publicly congratulate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection.  Moscow had no interest in backing a democratic movement in Iran then or now.

        Moscow’s inconsistent positions--tolerance of democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt but opposition to uprisings in Libya and Iran--is due to their differing geopolitical impacts on Russia.  The autocratic regimes ousted in Tunisia and Egypt had been closely allied to the United States.  New governments may maintain those ties, but opening up political and economic systems could also provide new diplomatic and business opportunities for Russia. Libya, however, is a different story.  Qaddafi’s relations with the United States have improved since 2003, but Russia’s relations have long been much stronger.  A democratic revolution in Libya could decrease Russian influence in Tripoli--and further improve America’s position in this large oil-rich country.

        Russia is particularly concerned about an uprising in Tehran that could lead to rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Russian analysts have long been concerned that a geopolitical shift in Iran could crowd out Russian businesses and lead the United States to work with Iran on provide an alternative to Russia as an export route for Caspian Basin oil and gas.

        In this context, Moscow’s support for the autocratic regime in Tehran--and its opposition to new sanctions--are not surprising. And neither position appears likely to change in the near future.

Read Mark Katz's chapter on Iran and Russia in “The Iran Primer”

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University

Why Ahmadinejad Lashed out at Russia

Mark N. Katz

  • Why is Ahmadinejad so publicly critical of Russia?

Ahmadinejad has harshly criticized for Moscow for cancelling its previously agreed-upon sale of S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran.  Tehran expected these weapons to be delivered in mid-2009, but Moscow first cited delays for "technical reasons."  Russia even claimed that the most recent set of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran did not cover the S-300s.  Although Tehran was annoyed at Moscow, the Iranians still hoped that the Russians would eventually deliver the S-300s.  But Moscow's recent announcement has dashed even this hope.

  • What does this development mean? 

Tehran had been especially eager to receive the S-300s because these may have been able to degrade (and hence, deter) an attack by Israel or even the United States aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear program.  By canceling the sale, Moscow is denying Tehran one way to do this--and thus could make such an attack more likely, or at least more credible.

  • How does it change things?

Moscow's cancellation of the S-300 sale to Tehran has to be seen as a success for the Obama Administration's campaign to get Russia to help the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue.  Moscow had previously been content to pursue a more ambiguous policy of promising the defense system to Tehran but then not delivering the S-300s.  The ambiguity created an incentive for Tehran as well as Western capitals to continue to court Moscow.

Moscow’s stance also helped the Kremlin project an image of Russia as a great power for its domestic audience. Moscow could claim that Russia pursued an independent foreign policy and did not just go along with the United States. These advantages may have diminished by Moscow's cancellation of the sale.  Of course, Moscow--or more precisely, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin--could also decide to reinstate the sale in the future.

  • Are the missiles that critical to Iran's military?

It will still be difficult for the United States or Israel to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities since these are reportedly dispersed in several locations and are well-protected or deep underground. Others are reportedly in major population centers.  Tehran would still have liked to acquire the S-300s since they could help limit the damage that the Iranian nuclear program might suffer from an attack.

  • What does it mean for Iran-Russian relations longer term?

The Russian cancellation of the sale of S-300s to Iran is just one more chapter in the tortured Russian-Iranian relationship going back at least two centuries.  It would not be surprising if Tehran responded by denying or cancelling Russian participation in one of Iran's petroleum extraction projects or re-directing Iranian business opportunities from Russia to China.  Still, as the Russians themselves may well calculate, Iranian retaliation may be limited since Tehran does not want Russia to vote for even harsher U.N. sanctions in the future.

Read Mark Katz's chapter on Iran and Russia in “The Iran Primer” 

Mark N. Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University, is a visiting scholar at the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, DC in 2010.

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