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Russia’s Double Game in the JCPOA Negotiations

Iran has long sought to reduce the impact of American economic sanctions by pursuing increased political and economic ties with the East, which has displayed greater flexibility and a willingness to tolerate differences in its foreign policy. Less than six months into office, the Raisi administration has been toeing the Look East line more vigorously, a policy that Iranian officials have acknowledged publicly.

“We’ve heard that the 13th administration [of the Islamic Republic of Iran] has adopted the Look East policy, and it is a source of great pleasure to us,” Russian Ambassador to Tehran Levan Dzhagaryan noted as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was preparing to travel to Russia amid intensive talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But Raisi’s high-profile state visit to Moscow came against the backdrop of concerns from various groups within Iran – from reformist and conservative factions alike – over the Islamic Republic’s steadily growing dependence on Russia. Several critics noted that Moscow has increasingly appeared to be speaking for Tehran over the course of the months-long nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 (made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) in the Austrian capital to restore the nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal has lingered near collapse since former U.S. President Donald Trump, an enemy of the deal before his election, pulled out and re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018.

Concerns grew further when Raisi refused to invite former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a veteran diplomat who played the decisive role in negotiating the original JCPOA in 2015, to an advisory meeting with former foreign ministers and seasoned diplomats involved in Iran’s nuclear talks. Some reformist websites and newspapers interpreted this as a gesture to placate the Russians, who were incensed at Zarif’s criticism of the Russian government and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in particular. Zarif’s alleged offense came in a three-hour interview, leaked to Iranian media during his final months in office, during which he said that Russia had sought in vain to stonewall last-ditch efforts for the finalization of the JCPOA. Although Zarif’s criticism led to scattered increases in anti-Russian sentiment across Iran, Moscow largely shrugged off Zarif’s criticism at the time.

Moscow Malaise

With the resumption of a new round of talks between Iran the “P5+1,” Russia has sought to play an instrumental role in the process. In marked contrast to their approach in 2015, Russian diplomats are sending positive signals and making optimistic statements, even implying that Iranian negotiators would back down from their “maximalist positions” during the talks. Indeed, the Russians appear to be emphasizing Moscow’s clout with Iran to show that Russia would be the key dealmaker in any hoped-for future agreement.

“Russia’s position towards’ JCPOA has been quite constant at least since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal… What we can see is a change in Russia’s tactics in terms of trying to be in the center of attention and to assert its role as a center of diplomacy when it comes to Iran’s nuclear issue,” Hamidreza Azizi, a scholar at the German Institute for Security and International Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, told the author.

Seasoned Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov, well known to Iranians for his frequent use of Twitter, is negotiating the revival of the JCPOA in Vienna. While it is not easy to get first-hand news from the nuclear talks, Ulyanov regularly posts tweets detailing the status of the negotiations, in effect becoming the P5+1’s unofficial spokesman.

The Russian diplomat, however, triggered controversy on social media after his unusually harsh (and decidedly undiplomatic) reaction to a short quote from Zarif’s leaked interview that reappeared in social media ahead of Raisi’s visit to Moscow, during which Zarif essentially accused Russia of attempting to sabotage the 2015 JCPOA talks. Some Iranians described Ulyanov’s response tweet as an “insult” to Zarif After enraged Iranian Twitter users began to attack the Russian diplomat online, Ulyanov deleted the offending comment.

However, the Russo-Iranian dispute did not end there. Instead, unrest over Ulyanov’s comments led to the voicing of broader concerns over Russia’s “domineering policy” vis-à-vis Iran. The Kremlin’s central role in the Vienna talks has touched off widespread jabs in Iranian mainstream and social media.  Given Iran’s refusal to sit one-on-one with the U.S. side, Ulyanov’s release of a photo of a December 29 meeting between Russian and U.S. diplomats concerning the Iran nuclear deal, intensified the criticism.

Pro-government conservative newspapers within Iran downplayed criticisms of the Russian negotiators, which they described as psychological warfare initiated by the U.S. and Israel.  But political activists and experts from both the reformist and conservative camps invoked Russia’s history with Iran to cast doubt on Moscow’s sincerity at acting as Iran’s ally in the face of U.S. pressure. These critics described Russia’s policies as “profiteering and opportunistic”, further calling into question Moscow’s seriousness in securing Iran’s best interests.

However, Russian affairs analyst Afifeh Abedi, who has been closely watching developments in the relations between Tehran and Moscow, maintains that under the present circumstances, Moscow favors a lasting and peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue – albeit subject to certain conditions.

“In the status quo, it was inevitable for Iran to engage Russia in the nuclear talks,” she said. “Under ideal conditions, Iran would have directly sat with the U.S. at the negotiating table, but for different reasons, we are in a situation where the Russians are positively active in the Iranian nuclear talks.”

“The JCPOA experience and its subsequent developments have proven to the Russians that Iran-U.S. hostility is not limited to the nuclear deal; as the JCPOA failed to re-open ties between Tehran and Washington, its revival would not give rise to any significant change,” Abedi further noted.

What Does Russia Really Want?

Strangely, despite forty years of unrelenting hostility between Tehran and Washington, many Iranians view Russia with more resentment and suspicion than the United States. Despite the Raisi administration’s attempts to forge closer ties with Russia, the flare-ups in Vienna show that most of the country distrusts Moscow’s Iran policy.

“The fact of the matter is that the public opinion in Iran is pessimistic about Russia for historical and cultural reasons; partly due to Russia’s role in the partitioning of the Great Persia and its subsequent mishaps and partly due to Russia’s political and economic immaturity and its historic failures vis-à-vis the West,” Abedi explained.

For their part, many pundits in Russia view Iranian society as basically Western-oriented in its outlook, speculating that any significant gains for Iran could threaten Russia’s wider interests. For this reason, one understands Moscow’s contentment with Raisi, a hardline cleric. With hardliners in full control of the reins of power in Tehran, Russia can pursue closer ties with Iran more comfortably. Last year’s finalization of Iran’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the planned extension of the Tehran-Moscow 20-year cooperation pact are clear signs of Russia’s confidence in Iran’s political future.

“The way Raisi came to power in terms of rival candidates eliminated from the scene and the emergence of a more unified political scene in terms of hardliners and the conservatives having the upper hand, demonstrates a kind of continuity in Iran’s general foreign policy orientations including and most importantly Iran’s approach toward the U.S. It means that the hostility to the U.S. is going to remain,” Azizi explained.

Ahead of Raisi’s travel to Moscow and afterward, government-run media described the state visit as a “turning point” in further convergence between Tehran and Moscow for “defeating U.S. sanctions”. However, no matter how strong the Iranian and Russian desire for closer ties may be, no one expects a breakthrough in the near future in their relationship. The “Look East” policy, and the perception of Russia and China as “saviors” of Iran in its dispute with the United States, is probably unrealistic under the current circumstances. Meanwhile, critics of the Look East policy note that all governments base their policies on national interests. Many have noted with concern that Russia and China’s indifference to local politics is a double-edged sword; both, after all, have very close and friendly ties with Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel.

“For Russia, it is possible to cooperate closely with Iran for example to sell arms to Iran and at the same time have good relations with Israel,” Azizi said. Even so, “on the Iranian side, there is this view that Russia can be relied on for everything for circumventing the sanctions and for various types of cooperation… as long as these contradictory views or better to say the misunderstanding of Russia exists, [Iranians] are going to get more and more disappointed.”

To some extent, Russo-Iranian relations are geographically inevitable, and peace and security in both nations are tied to collaboration and prosperous ties between the two nations. However, the relations must be based on reciprocal respect for security considerations, as well as cooperation for the establishment of peace and security in the region. Truly harmonious relations between Tehran and Moscow cannot be achieved until each nation is certain where the other stands.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iran

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Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran. Formerly he was the chief editor and producer at PressTV website, the Iranian state-owned English news, and documentary network (2015-2019). He was also a political editor at the Financial Tribune (2014-2015) and the Tehran Times (2010-2014). Hashemi is an alumnus of the ‘Heinz- Kühn Foundation’ in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. His work and commentary have been featured in Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, the Middle East Eye, The Wire as well as Iranian media outlets, among others.


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