Europe should keep a firewall between nuclear talks with Iran and the standoff over Ukraine with Russia.
Eyebrows rose last month after a Russian official stated that the fallout over Ukraine between Moscow and the West (that is, Europe and the United States) could have an impact on the nuclear talks with Iran. As the E3+3 (UK, France, Germany, China, US, and Russia) and Iran wrapped up the latest rounds of nuclear talks in Vienna, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov Ryabkov threatened that Russia“wouldn’t like to use these [nuclear] talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes” between Moscow and the West, but that if Russia felt forced, it would “take retaliatory measures here as well”. This comment followed an announcement of fresh sanctions against Russia from Europe and the US. This led to some fears and speculation that Russia could derail a potential final nuclear deal with Iran, which already faces substantial technical and political challenges.
Although plausible, the notion that Russia would actually be willing to sabotage the nuclear talks in order to gain ground in the standoff over Ukraine is far-fetched. Regardless of disagreements over Putin’s stance elsewhere, including in Syria, the bottom line remains that Russia does not want to see Iran weaponise its nuclear programme any more than the West does. Nonetheless, given that the political crisis in Crimea is the more urgent issue for Russia currently, Moscow is likely to try to pepper the nuclear talks with new tensions if it believes this could advance its goals with respect to Ukraine.
One route would be to muddy the consensus amongst the E3+3. For example, as the threat of Western sanctions against Moscow grows, Russia may demand more extensive sanctions relief for Iran as part of a final nuclear deal. This would serve as a gesture of objection towards the West’s sanctions policy in general and enable Russia to negotiate a right of first refusal with Iran on trade prospects if sanctions targeting the nuclear programme are eventually eased. Moscow already has the upper hand over Europe when it comes to doing business with Iran, most recently, Russia has agreed to build two nuclear power reactors for Iran in exchange for oil. Although expanded trade ties with Tehran would be minor in comparison to what Russia stands to lose from European capitals, the figures are not insignificant, and Moscow will be keen to showcase Iran as its ally in the anti-West resistance camp.
Iran, for its part, will also look for any advantage the Ukraine conflict might offer. Events in Ukraine are not of direct geographical or economic concern for Iran – but Tehran is aware that the biggest players amongst the E3+3 are stepping closer towards a Cold War mentality. Tehran is also alert to the possibility that a fallout between these two players could impact Iran’s ability to realise its top foreign policy goal of resolving the nuclear file. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration does not want to see a breakdown in nuclear negotiations because of disunity amongst the E3+3, it will certainly utilise the standoff over Ukraine to Iran’s advantage. On an economic level, as Europe begins to think about diversifying its energy supplies to reduce its dependency on Russia (which currently provides for 30 percent of Europe’s gas needs), Iran, which holds the world’s second largest gas reserves, will be keen to present itself as an obvious energy partner for Europe.
On regional security, Russia’s military involvement in Crimea could have implications for how seriously the West now takes Iran’s involvement in finding a sustainable resolution to the Syrian civil war. The West cannot ignore that both Iran and Russia played a critical role in securing the chemical weapons deal with Syria last August through their influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Similar concerted pressure will be required for future ceasefires and peace talks – however the willingness amongst the West and Russia to meaningfully engage on these issues may diminish as tensions over Ukraine rise. In such an instance, the West would be presented with a choice, more starkly than before, to take a different approach to Syria, one that would integrate regional stakeholders, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran officially supports Russia, and the fallout over Ukraine could provide Iran’s hardliners with further arguments that Tehran should step back from its détente with the West to more closely align with its traditional ally, Moscow. If the nuclear talks reach a deadlock due to technicalities or to US President Barack Obama’s inability to persuade Congress to agree on the final terms of a deal, Iran’s hardliners may use the West-Russia divide to take Iran back to its anti-West rhetoric. As things stand, Rouhani’s administration is determined to advance rapprochement with the West on the nuclear issue and potentially beyond. Iran is eager to expand trade with the West while reducing its dependence on China and Russia. Rouhani’s team does not want to jeopardise the current diplomatic track by being too reverent towards Russian policy on Ukraine.
So far, disagreements between Russia and the West over Ukraine have had little impact on the mandate and determination of the nuclear negotiators in Vienna. Technical and political discussions between the E3+3 and Iran have been fixed for April– with no change yet on the pace and scope of these talks. However, actors for whom a final nuclear deal remains a top foreign policy priority (particularly presidents Obama and Rouhani) must pay close attention to how the crisis over Ukraine develops and how it might affect Moscow’s behaviour in the nuclear talks. Europe would do well to try to maintain the firewall between the negotiations with Iran as part of the E3+3 and diplomatic tensions between itself and Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.