Iran and the Looming U.S.-Russian Cold War

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The Jamestown Foundation

As the Western world is drawn in by the recent events in the Crimea, nations on the periphery are seeing a chance to use the widening gulf between Russia and the United States/EU to further their own aims. A debate has already begun inside the Iranian regime about how to best leverage this Russo-Western diplomatic spat to lessen international pressure on Iran’s nuclear program and the isolation of the country. On the one hand, the government of President Rouhani is looking at the fallout over Crimea as an opportunity to break the hitherto American-Russian covenant to sanction Tehran for its nuclear activities, but for this camp, the ultimate aim is not policy realignment toward Moscow. Rouhani’s hardline opponents, however, see it very differently. The hardline camp in Tehran senses a protracted Russo-American conflict and some of its voices are already looking to make the case for Tehran to choose Russia over Rouhani’s policy of détente toward Washington. 

Iran’s Reading of the Crimea Crisis

The prospect of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia is tantalizing to many in Tehran. As soon as the crisis over Crimea began to unfold, an array of Iranian policymakers began to speculate aloud about the broader implications of Moscow and Washington in a rekindled battle for global influence.

This sense of excitement cuts across factional lines among Iran’s political elite. Both the moderate camp, spearheaded by President Hassan Rouhani, and his opponents in the hardline faction in Tehran agree that the crisis in US-Russian relations presents an opportunity for Iran; Russia is anticipated henceforth to be far less inclined to cooperate with Washington about curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.

The dominant Iranian reading is that an American-Russian covenant has been an important factor in forging an international consensus against Iran’s controversial nuclear program. This perception is backed by the fact that the Russians have since July 2006, when the first round of international sanctions were imposed on Iran, broadly backed American measures to curtail Iran’s nuclear aspirations. In the eyes of Iranian policymakers, the likely demise of this American-Russian covenant can only mean a loosening of the international consensus that has undermined Tehran on the global diplomatic stage while its consequences have wrecked its economy.  Moscow has already suggested that it will reassess its hitherto cooperation with Washington about Iran following the outbreak of the Crimean crisis.

Though Iran’s moderate and hardline factions agree that the American-Russian fallout over Crimea will likely have lasting global impact, they plainly disagree about the character of opportunities this presents for Iran. In the minds of the moderates, the renewed conflict between Russia and the United States provides Tehran with much needed diplomatic space to undermine the international consensus aimed at squeezing Tehran until it can satisfy all concerns about its nuclear intentions. Put differently, the Russo-American conflict is judged as precious leverage for Tehran as Rouhani’s government look for ways to unshackle Iran’s international isolation.

For the ideologically-driven hardline camp in Tehran, with its intrinsic suspicion of and hostility toward the United States, the crisis over Crimea is not just a means to lessen Iran’s isolation but potentially an enabler of a drastic re-orientation of Tehran’s foreign policy agenda. It is viewed as a golden moment for Tehran to abandon Rouhani’s aspirations to seek a policy of détente vis-à-vis the United States and that Iran should instead align itself with Moscow at the dawn of a new Cold War. As Khorasan, a hardline outlet, put it in an editorial shortly before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, “Coming days will be the time for weighing the current structures and deciding about the old world order which has been in place since the Second World War and the [last] Cold War.” [1]

The view from the Rouhani camp

Since his arrival to the Saad Abad presidential palace in August 2013, Hassan Rouhani and his government have undoubtedly prioritized Iranian diplomatic efforts to lessen tensions with the United States and other Western countries. As any sober analysis will corroborate, Rouhani declared the continuation of international sanctions imposed on Iran to be unbearable for his country and pledged to reverse Iran’s isolation. Rouhani’s foreign policy focus on the United States and the West was tied to two basic realties.

The first, and by far the most important, was the fact that Washington was the principal determining actor that shaped the extent and intensity of the crippling sanctions Tehran faced. The undoing of the crippling sanctions therefore invariably meant dealing with Washington. As Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president himself (1989-1997) and arguably Rouhani’s closest political ally in Tehran put it “America is the preeminent global power. If we can negotiate with the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians, why can’t we negotiate with the Americans?” [2]

The lesser factor was linked to the fact that Rouhani and his government are undoubtedly Western-centric in their worldview in the general sense. Gone are the days of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who for eight years in office touted the notion of an Iranian foreign policy that focused on the south (Africa and Latin America) and east (East Asia) to impress the unconvincing point that Iran can skirt Western pressure.

Rouhani’s foreign policy campaign pledge had been to stop Ahmadinejad’s policy of aimless symbolic grandstanding and to instead focus on narrow but tangible policy goals. The initiation of a process of rapprochement with the West topped the list of priorities but the broader goal by this new moderate Iranian government was general overhaul of Iranian foreign policy. In that context, and even before the outbreak of the crisis over Crimea, the Rouhani government soon after coming to office began to cultivate Moscow as well. The intention was not to prioritize Russia over the West but to use the Russian channel as a way of lessening existing economic pains experienced by Tehran as the bulk of the sanctions remained in place even after Tehran reached a nuclear deal with the P5+1 in Geneva in November 2013.

Russian utility

The Rouhani government’s emphasis on economic cooperation in its approach toward Moscow was evident from the start. In his first meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Rouhani set the groundwork. At the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September in Bishkek, Rouhani and Putin tellingly stressed the utility of closer economic cooperation. Within two months and shortly after the November 2013 Geneva nuclear deal, Tehran and Moscow announced an oil-for-goods swap deal to the tune of $1.5 billion per month or roughly 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day in return for Russian goods and commodities such as grain (Reuters, January 10).

Rouhani’s government has been very public about its desire to see Moscow make more concrete commitments to the Iranian market. Mehdi Sanaei, Iran’s latest ambassador to Moscow, has let it be known that the two countries are now negotiating “multiple economic matters, from energy to banking.” [3]

Sanaei flaunted that a broad bilateral economic package might be in place by August 2014. Russia’s economic development minister, Alexi Ulyukayev, is due to visit Tehran in April to advance this agenda. Putin himself, who last visited Tehran in 2007, was also said to be planning a return visit to Iran although that was cited before the Crimean crisis. In the meantime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited each others’ capitals in December 2013 and January 2014 respectively.

There is clearly more to it, however, than merely providing an outlet for Iranian crude oil through Russia and other sanction-busting attempts. Tehran has announced that some of the Russian payment for Iranian crude oil can be repaid in the form of assistance with the development of more nuclear plants in Iran. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, has stated that Tehran is in talks with Moscow about commissioning a new 4,000MW nuclear plant near the existing nuclear site at Bushehr where the Russians in 2011 completed Iran’s first 1,000MW reactor (Voice of Russia, January 13).

Moscow has repeatedly expressed a desire to play a leading role in Iran’s nuclear expansion plans, which is officially targeted at a capacity of 20,000MW by 2020. The Russians, however, must be suspicious that the latest offers of economic and nuclear cooperation are more about the Rouhani government seeking to consolidate Iran’s newfound nuclear status in the face of deep Western reservations than it is a reflection of an abiding commitment to Russia as a principal commercial and trading partner.

This would be a fair assessment by the Russians. The Rouhani government cannot be accused of looking at Russia through rose-colored glasses. Over the last decade, Russian actions have generated much bitterness in Tehran. Besides its repeated support to sanction Iran at the UN Security Council, Moscow’s 2010 decision to cancel the sale of the much-wanted S-300 anti-air missile system combined with its perceived foot-dragging in completing the first Bushehr nuclear plant consolidated the historic Iranian reservations about Russia. In Tehran, the prevalent perception had become that Moscow was playing Iran as a card to advance its own interests vis-à-vis the West and that it would not hesitate to backtrack on its commitments to Iran if circumstances required it.

For the Rouhani government to play the Russian card as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West is both plausible and cogent. In fact, this is probably the course that the Rouhani government will attempt to take as the Russo-American fallout over Crimea evolves in the months to come.

As Nasser Hadian, a foreign policy expert close to the Rouhani government, put it recently in an article published by Iranian Diplomacy, a source of influential voices that are largely backing Rouhani foreign policy agenda, Iran has to act as a “nation state” with foreign policies that will advance its own national interests. [4]

In other words, rather than pursue ideologically-tainted and often deluded foreign policy hopes that became customary during the Ahmadinejad era, the Rouhani government should exploit divisions between the United States and Russia but stay out of choosing sides in the crisis over Crimea. After all, Russia never sided with Iran in its nuclear dispute with the West and thus, Tehran is not indebted to Moscow. This view appears to be the bottom line of the Rouhani camp.

There are, however, undoubtedly Iranian hardliners who are drawing some very different lessons from the Russian annexation of Crimea and what it should mean for policymakers in Tehran. At the extreme end, Mansur Haqiqatpour, the deputy chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament, said Moscow’s action in Crimea sets a precedent for Iran to reclaim its lost regions. “If we pursue this issue, we will be able to annex to Iran the 17 cities in the Caucasus which were separated from Iran during the time of the incompetent Qajar kings [in the 19th century].” [5]

Haqiqatpour and those of his ilk in the Iranian political establishment tend to be animated but sit far from the typical assessment about the global implications of this latest Russo-American conflict. For now, the debate in Tehran suggests that the Rouhani government is still attentive to the supportive role that Russia can play as a way to pressure Washington while also at the same nudging Moscow to re-evaluate the utility of closer cooperation given past Iranian disappointments in Russian commitments to Iran.

When Iran’s national interests coincide with those of Russia, as most graphically seen in the support both countries have provided to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria since 2011, then the Rouhani government can be expected to coordinate closely with Moscow. This, however, is not a tantamount to a foreign policy realignment toward Moscow in the broader sense, perhaps much to the disappointment of Rouhani’s hardline critics in Tehran. President Rouhani and his team clearly still believe that the long-term of interests of Iran still requires a rapprochement with the West and that the wrong lessons should not be drawn from the crisis in Crimea.