Russia’s New Diplomatic Idea for Iran

July 26, 2011
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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