Russian-Iranian Relations in the Shadow of Ukraine
The ongoing attempt to improve Iranian-Western relations is occurring at a time when Russian-Western ties have sharply deteriorated over Ukraine. Moscow has increased its efforts to improve its ties to Tehran. But while Moscow and Tehran share some common interests, they remain at odds over others.
Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University, discussed Russian-Iranian relations in light of the ongoing nuclear negotiations and the current Ukraine crisis.
On March 23, 2015, the Middle East Program and the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted an event, “Russian-Iranian Relations in the Shadow of Ukraine” with Katz, also a former scholar of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Katz began by stating that the character of Russian-Iranian relations is much different since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani than it was in the past. He noted the tension between the United States and Russia has increased because of the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine. However, he emphasized that for the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution there is hope for an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations. It is not likely that U.S.-Russian relations will improve in the coming years, however. Katz then explained how the nuclear negotiations are playing a large role in the three countries’ relations with one another. He said Russia would not interfere in the nuclear talks because it is not in a position to stop them but argued that Russia would not benefit from improved U.S.-Iranian relations because sanctions against Iran would be lifted with a deal, allowing for Iranian oil imports. Furthermore, Katz stated that despite the illusion of a stronger alliance created by the visits of Russian officials to Iran and vice-versa, there is still a significant amount of history between the two countries. For example, the division of the Caspian Sea is still an unresolved conflict between Russia and Iran, and Iran remains resentful of Russia for Soviet support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Katz emphasized that while the media may portray U.S.-Iranian relations as strained, Russian-Iranian relations are much more hostile.
Katz argued that despite the differences Russia and Iran may have, they share the same view on multiple issues. He stated that both countries are fearful of the Taliban regaining control and influence in Afghanistan. In addition, both countries support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and provide military assistance to Assad. Russia and Iran also both have a common interest in joining the fight against ISIS, which poses a threat to both countries’ national security. Regarding a potential nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, Katz stated that Russia is very conflicted—Russia does not see Iran acquiring nuclear power as the worst case scenario but is concerned about an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. Although Russia is not in a position to block the nuclear deal, it hopes it will benefit from the failure to secure a deal.
On the topic of Russia-Iran relations with regard to the Ukrainian conflict, Katz argued that Iran is not concerned with the issue and has kept its distance from the matter. Katz stated that Iran would benefit from the crisis because it gives the country more leverage with the West, considering that the West will want to reduce their dependence on Russian gas and would be more likely to turn to Iran for support.
In response to a question from Jane Harman, President of the Wilson Center, on whether Russia will benefit from taking Iran’s reprocessed fuel if the negotiations succeed, Katz said that Russia would benefit greatly from this because it would produce a profit, but whether or not this will put Russia in the good graces of the West is questionable because of the escalation and severity of the Ukraine crisis. Esfandiari asked what effect Russia’s rush to sign agreements on additional nuclear power plants with Iran will have on the talks. Katz answered that Russia views the negotiations as an opportunity for the United States to gain commercial profit rather than a national security issue. Therefore, Russia is attempting to sign as many agreements as possible with Iran before the United States has an opportunity to lift the sanctions.
By: Mirette Wahba, Middle East Program
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more
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