Russia’s interest in cooperating with Iran free of nuclear weapons

Spoke to VOA on how Iran deal and how Russia sees prevention of emergence of more nuclear armed powers in vicinity of its borders as a vital national interest that trumps other considerations
See full Q and A below

Question: President Obama said in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that Russia “was a help” in reaching the nuke agreement with Iran. “Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-plus members in insisting on a strong deal,” Mr. Obama said.
Answer: I think President Obama is underestimating Russia’s role. Had Russia vetoed rounds of UNSC sanctions on Iran, the latter would not have eventually agreed to negotiate in earnest. This deal would not have happened in Russia didn’t support it.  Let us recall who was the last head of the states that negotiated with Iran to meet the Iranian leader before the deal was reached. It was Putin in Ufa. And it was not just a formal meeting. The Iranian leader came to repeat his request for Iran’s membership in SCO, to which Russia said it would be possible if the deal on Iran’s nuclear program is reached.  I was not surprised by Russia’s willingness to work toward a diplomatic result ion of the Iran crisis in spite of the deterioration of the relations with the West in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. It is in Russia’s vital interest to prevent emergence of another nuclear armed power in vicinity of its borders, especially it that neighbor had a long history of competing with Russia for control of territories and influence in such strategically important areas, as South Caucasus. That vital interests trumps all other possible considerations, that some ascribe to Russian leadership’s cost-and-benefit analysis on Iran deal, such as ‘spiting the West’ or averting decline in oil prices.
A nuclear armed Iran could have been much more assertive not only in S. Caucasus, but also in Central Asia, where Iranians’ cousins – Tajiks live and where Russia would like to retain its strong influence. Russia also supported the deal because the alternative, as the president of George W. Bush demonstrated, could have been a serious consideration of use of force by the United States and some of its allies against Iran. Such a use of force would have led to an armed conflict, which would have had a strong destabilizing impact on regional security, which Russia openly worried about. Moreover, had US proceeded to attempt a regime change in Iran that would have created another pressure point on Russia in what its leadership sees as a wide-ranging competition with West for influence over Russia’s neighbors.

Question: Why, in your view, did Russia help to secure the deal, and what does it hope to get out of it? Isn’t it true that the agreement, if it is implemented and holds, could actually hurt Russia by making it possible for Iran to become a major oil exporter once again, lowering world oil prices to Russia’s detriment and making Iran a competitor of Russia in the oil market?
Answer:  I mostly answered the question above. As for oil, yes, price may go down a bit and yes, Iran will expand its share of the market, but Russian energy analysts do not expect a dramatic change:
Russian government source told Kommersant that: “Prices on oil have fallen even without the Iranian deal. We have been observing only an insignificant decline (of these prices). The market will par this. In the meantime Russia can not only boost cooperation with Iran in the military-technical sphere, but also to actively develop the trade and economic relations with it.
Uralsib Bank’s analyst Kokin: After the embargo lifting Iran will be able to supply the world market additional 1 mn barrels of oil per day within 6 months. In comparison,  the global daily oil supply was 94 million barrels a day as of January 2015.
When trying to gauge how much decline of oil prices factored in the Russian leadership’s decision to continue actively support the deal with Iran, I would also recall chief of Putin’s staff S. Ivanov’s recent invoking of the notion that “mineral resources wealth and in particular high oil prices, is not a blessing but a curse for Russia. That’s what I think” in an interview with FT.

Question: More broadly, what is the nature of the Iranian-Russian relationship? Is it just a matter of several common interests – opposition to Sunni radicalism and U.S. hegemony, for example – or is there something deeper?
Answer:  Russia and Iran need each other to set the rules of the game in the Caspian region and South Caucasus, including transit corridors and prevention of NATO expansion to S. Caucasus. They also need each other to ensure stability in Central Asia, which they once helped to achieve in the 1990s, helping to end civil war in Tajikistan. Of course, it is important for Russia that Iran doesn’t only gravitate toward West, but also doesn’t become a spoiler for Russia in Russia’s own North Caucasus by supporting Islamist insurgency there. Almost as important is Russia’s trade with Iran, primarily sales of Russian-made sophisticated machinery, production of which helps Russia to prevent even greater dependence of its economy on sales of oil and gas. Iran is far from being the largest customer of Russia’s defense industry, but it has spent hundreds of millions on Russian arms in the past and it can do so again if UN sanctions are lifted or eased (see estimates below). All these common interests should facilitate strengthening of cooperation a nuclear arms free Iran and Russia.


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