Moscow is preparing to counter President Biden’s stringent policy against Russia, that was depicted as the “biggest threat” to the U.S. Recent remarks by Russian officials suggest that Moscow sees the Trump administration’s two main Iran policy legacies in the Middle East, i.e., withdrawing from JCPOA and emboldening Israel through peace deals, as an opportunity for deepening alignment with Iran and promoting Russia’s great power status. Although winning the next Iranian presidential election by hardliners will create an additional capacity to further contribute to Russo-Iranian relations, some complexities require a nuanced approach from both sides.
In his pre-election interviews, president-elect Joe Biden called Russia the “biggest threat” to the United States. No further details have been released about what that exactly means and what policy and goals his foreign policy and national security teams will pursue regarding Russia. Nonetheless, any possible “containment” policy against Russia by Washington will probably not exclude addressing Russian presence and policies in the regions like the Middle East or, for example, Eastern Europe. Such an approach will inevitably affect Russia’s bilateral ties with its allies and partners, including Iran. It may compel Moscow to devise new routes to achieve its regional and international interests and purposes.
Recent remarks by Russian officials caused speculation that Moscow has a calculated plan towards Iran, suggesting Moscow wants more proximity and maybe more intertwined relations with Tehran in the Biden era. Russia hopes Iran will not ignore its endeavours during Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and not engage with the U.S. to the detriment of its partnership with Russia. Moscow claims if Russian past steps in favour of Iran turn into money, “it will be billions and billions of dollars” which “Tehran knows very well.” The estimation seems sensible from the Kremlin perspective because Russia perceives itself as a saviour of the JCPOA via diplomatic influence in Tehran, a covert contributor to Iran to endure the sanctions, booster of the country’s air-defence and reconnaissance radar capabilities, and opener of new regional markets for Iran.
On the other side, some different voices are heard from Iran, which to some extent can be worrisome for Russia. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), recently maintained that Iran is the “buckle” of the “belt which the West has thrown around Russia” and President Biden wants to “compromise with Iran somehow to boost pressure on Russia.” He concluded that Iran is a “great and independent neighbour to Russia,” which now could benefit a new “historical opportunity” in the “US, China and Russia triangle.” Salehi’s opportunistic notion is not a dominant view in Tehran. In other words, Washington’s new “containment” policy against Moscow wouldn’t necessarily mean sole and unique opportunities for Tehran. Iran itself will face an entanglement with the Biden administration on its non-nuclear dossiers, which could even contain common ground for Russia and Iran to deepen their relations and use untapped potentials under certain strategic conditions. As stated, Russia is trying to set the stage to provide such conditions, but how?
Russia Sees the JCPOA as Its Key Play Ticket in Iran’s Dealing With the U.S.
Last year, when Iran decided to diminish its commitments under the JCPOA in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Vladimir Putin decried Tehran’s decision. He affirmed, “Russia is not a firefighting rescue crew… to save things that are not fully under our control.” His statements were covered in the Iranian media and raised historical doubts against Russian policy.
Reportedly, Russia has revised its role and now acts like a tireless “firefighter” to prohibit Iran from “emotional” actions such as “ending the application of Additional Protocol” or taking any other reckless nuclear steps. Moscow also proposed some diplomatic meetings, which were rejected by the US and Iran. Furthermore, Russia presented Collective Security in the Persian Gulf initiative to prevent any regional conflict.
Beyond the diplomatic endeavour, Moscow still advocates the U.S. rejoining to the JCPOA and lifting Iran’s sanctions. This is the same announced policy or at least initial steps that president-elect Joe Biden wants to take toward Iran. Although at first glance Tehran as a close partner of Moscow will take a fresh breath, and Russia may seem envious of that. Still, any new engagement between Iran and the U.S. on the JCPOA will reach Russia to the two major goals: asserting Russian great power status through emphasizing on its previous diplomatic efforts in the multilateral framework and proving to Iran that Moscow doesn’t consider illegal U.S. sanctions against Iran as an opportunity or play card.
Therefore, the Islamic Republic’s compromising with the West on issues like missiles program and regional influence, in a framework other than multilateralism, can be a significant concern for Kremlin. Unlike Iran’s nuclear program, which was a global problem, and Russia had leverage in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Islamic Republic’s regional activities and missiles program are more of a concern to the U.S. and its regional allies.
Meanwhile, Iran and Russia seemingly have different views on the aftermath of the JCPOA and Iran’s non-nuclear dossiers. Tehran rejects any new nuclear and non-nuclear negotiations absolutely; Whereas Moscow bears a macro plan in mind. Russia believes the “normalization” of the JCPOA doesn’t require addressing Iran’s “missile program and regional behaviour” and as the latter two “have a chance to be settled only in the broader regional context,” it’s not needed to be “mix up” with “nuclear dossier.” In other words, Russia interprets these issues as negotiable under certain conditions and accepts Western demands, even implicitly.
Regardless of how many years its renegotiation and improvement would require, it seems that Russia views a well-functioning JCPOA as a necessary ticket to attend in Iran’s presumptive future non-nuclear negotiations with U.S. and European powers. But the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insists upon preserving Iran’s regional presence and missile power and rejects any pullback. This is an area of disagreement between Tehran and Moscow. Iran pursues lifting the sanctions and the U.S. returning to the JCPOA without any preconditions and other demands or adjustments based on new developments. Tehran is not enthusiastic about reviving the JCPOA in its original form and is preparing itself for more nuclear escalation.
Therefore, although the JCPOA provides Russia with ample space and opportunity to exhibit its diplomatic status against the U.S., it wouldn’t be an easy task for it to play a constructive role in the nuclear deal in a way that Iran is satisfied with. There has not yet leaked any indication of exchanging views from Russo-Iranian diplomatic collaborations on how Tehran and Moscow intend to address the issue and how they want to bring their views closer together.
Shifting Russian Rhetoric in Favor of Iran Against Israel
Overlooking Israel’s campaign against Iran in Syria has raised critical voices against Russia inside Iran. This compounds societal, historical mistrust between the two countries and amplifies pessimism toward Russia in some Iranian political groups. Though Russia is a great power with enormous capabilities and an undeniable contribution in Syria that couldn’t be ignored or rebuked by Iranian officials, the bilateral dynamics may be affected negatively in the long-term.
Notwithstanding close relations with Israel, Russia adopted a position similar to that of Iran regarding the recent peace deals between Israel and some Arab nations. While underlining its own role in the Middle East peace process, Moscow announced U.S.-brokered peace deals “should not be used as the substitute for the settlement of the Palestinian issue.” In another important case for Iran, the Russian ambassador in Tel Aviv strongly criticized Israel’s regional behaviour, which was signalling Iran’s defensive stance in the region. Anatoly Viktorov told the Israeli newspaper that the problem of the region “is not Iranian activities” and it is Israel who “destabilizes the Middle East” through “attacking Hezbollah.” “Israel must not attack the territories of sovereign UN members,” he added.
Viktorov’s remarks come from a strategic view and prudence. From the Russian point of view, limitless supporting of Tel Aviv’s military-diplomatic campaign in the current situation of the region can be counterproductive and lead to the marginalization of Russia’s influence and footprint in the Middle East political peace process. Additionally, as the growing normalization process continues in parallel with intensifying Israelis aggressive military campaign against Iranian targets in the region, the Russian critical voice against Israel could, at least, prevent more escalation between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Obviously, more escalation provides Iran with more evidence to justify its missile program and regional activities as necessary defensive tools against the “enemy.” This, in turn, would encourage Iran to stay away from the negotiation table as much as possible.
Moscow knows that the furthering of normal relations between Arab countries and Israel will also result in more political isolation of Iran in the Middle East and make Tehran more enthusiastic about increasing Russian involvement in the region. Hence, rebalancing some aspects of the new environment of the region in favour of the Islamic Republic as a “strategic partner” would echo broadly in the Iranian hardliner political circles and stimulate them to give Russia a bigger economic and military footprint in Iran.
Russia and the Coming Hardliner President of Iran
Critics accuse Rouhani’s government of waiting for negotiations with the U.S. new administration and not paying enough attention to Eastern powers like Russia and China. One of the conservative Iranian MPs stated, “China does not has enough confidence in Rouhani’s government and is waiting for the next government of Iran so that may be able to reach an agreement with the hardliners at the time.” Kayhan newspaper, close to Supreme Leader of Iran also wrote “negotiations [with the United States and Europe] make non-U.S. and non-European ways unsafe for us… because it confuses countries like China, Russia and India… and they doubt our sincerity in… turning to Eastern policy.” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stressed his record and called Iran’s relations with Russia “unprecedented in history” and claimed it was only in the Rouhani’s administration that “China accepted its relations with Iran to be strategic.” “My thirty visits to Russia are more than all of my foreign trips,” he said.
Discrediting Rouhani’s efforts to rehabilitate the JCPOA and lift sanctions through compromise with Biden’s administration does not mean hardliners rule out negotiations entirely. With a conservative in the horizon as Iran’s next president, hardliners will complete their power monolith. As the most devoted to the Islamic Republic’s core values and achievements, negotiations on non-nuclear issues with the United States will probably be on their agenda. Yet, due to changes in Iran’s periphery security environment, such as the dire hostility of Saudi Arabia and Israel toward Tehran and Arab-Israeli normalization, they would face a difficult balancing act between demands of the U.S. and its regional allies, keeping critical national security guarantees against regional foes, and bounding to mottos and ideals.
A hardliner figure close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) taking power will lighten the image of the binary governance in Iran and bring the Supreme Leader and Presidency close together. This could give eager Russia more assurance to regard the new president as “authorized” and the desirable representative of the system (Nezam). Unlike Zarif’s close collaboration with Russia, for example, Moscow hasn’t hastened to get his signature on the revised version of the Russia-Iran 2001 treaty, which includes cooperation principles on a wide variety of fields.
However, critics will seek more progressive contributions to their “resistance” discourse by Russia. As the U.S. and Europe move beyond the JCPOA and address the Islamic Republic’s missile program and regional activities, resorting to Russian diplomatic weight to counter the Western campaign will be an available option for Tehran. From Iran’s perspective, Israel’s extending regional diplomatic campaign could quickly turn into a defensive alliance with Arabs or even a military threat against Tehran. Therefore, the next government in Iran under a hardline president would expect Moscow to bolster Tehran’s deterrence power by providing it with strategic arms, such as jet fighters and advanced air defence systems, including the S-400, and push back Israel to the country’s southern borders.
Additionally, as Iran prepares itself for oil production with full capacity to retake its market share in the post-sanctions era, it will pursue Moscow’s practical steps. Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh, as an influential energy figure in Iran, met with Russian energy officials in Moscow on December 20. He described the energy cooperation of the two countries as “expanding day by day” which is to “neutralize the consequences of sanctions.” Zanganeh assured Moscow implicitly that Iran-Russia partnership will not change under a new situation and “ups and downs in the international arena.” Without giving any specific details, he showed a green light to Russian energy companies to “operate” and “invest” in Iran.
Economically, Russia isn’t as capable as others such as China, yet it is interested in benefitting from Iran’s new market and infrastructure projects, as well as getting its fair share of Tehran’s Eastern strategy. Nevertheless, the Russians take the punitive U.S. sanctions seriously and see them as a significant impediment to Iran’s path. Lifting part of Iran’s sanctions by the Biden administration, including the arms embargo, would pave the way and raise Tehran’s expectations.
The Bottom Line
The rise of a new convergence of the needs between Tehran and Moscow doesn’t necessarily imply determination from both sides to usher in a new phase of coordination at the regional and bilateral levels against the U.S. The possibilities are different from practical decisions. Despite some exaggerated views in Iran on Russo-Iranian relations, Russia always has a balanced foreign policy approach and avoided relations with Iran bearing any extra cost and affecting relations with the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
Based on this perspective, adhering to Iran’s unlimited nuclear escalation, missile program, and regional activities could be very costly to Moscow. Even facing the new, aggressive U.S. campaign, Russia will view Iran through the great power competition framework. Drivers such as new sanctions or other diplomatic measures aimed at isolating Russia in the Middle East and curtailing its influence will not be profound enough to provoke Moscow to reconsider engagement with Tehran.
Iran needs to understand Russian regional and global constraints. Russian power and influence is limited and can only impact some mild changes and rebalances. If Tehran reaches an ultimate escalation with the U.S. and maintains its current position, anticipating significant Russian contributions will be unproductive and in vain.
From our partner RIAC