Spoke to Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson on Russian-Iranian oil talks – see the last two graphs of this story: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/01/10/putins_oil_slick#sthash.udjo5THZ.dpbs or read full text of what I said here:
My answers to Foreign Policy on Russian-Iranian talks on oil-for-goods swap
I cannot say the news of Russia negotiating an oil-for-goods swap came as a great surprise to me. It might seem to some of the Western observers that Putin is acting as an irrational spoiler, but he is not. And here is why:
Since returning to the Kremlin, Putin has been putting out feelers about whether he can mend fences with Iran, which became strained after his predecessor Medvedev signed up for a round of UN sanctions on Iran, cancelling sale of S-300 PMU air defense systems to Iran. (Not that Putin didn’t condone his protégé’s actions, but change of guard in the Kremlin gave me a pretext to adjust policy) One sign that Putin is trying to do that is periodically emerging news reports that Russia plans to supply S-300V air defense systems to compensate for its refusal to supply S-300 PMU). So negotiating a deal that would relieve some of the pressure on Iran without violating UN sanctions would be in line with this adjusted policy.
It should be noted that negotiating a deal on acquisition of Iranian oil doesn’t violate UNSC sanctions. It is true that such a deal would run contrary to sanctions imposed by US and EU, but Russia is not a member of EU nor has it pledged to honor these Western sanctions. To the contrary, Russia has opposed these sanctions, which it has repeatedly described as unilateral and counterproductive as it increases probability of escalation, the ultimate result of which could an armed conflict, which Russia seeks to avert (here is why:
The Russo-Iranian oil talks, if they are taking place, would also be in line with Putin’s general view is that Iran should be rewarded for becoming more cooperative in its interactions with P5+1 and IAEA – and there has been steady progress achieved in this field, so Russia is not actually jumping the gun.
That Russian sources have divulged information about these talks to international media may also be interpreted as a signal to the U.S. (as you know there has emerged a majority in Senate that supports the Iran sanctions bill) that Russia has the will and capabilities to offset any move by any country to try unilaterally increase pressure on Iran.
As for the bigger picture, this move is part of the overall effort by Putin to increase his country’s role on the global scene in line with his vision of Russia as an indispensable player in any major international game, be it conflict resolution in Syria or resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.