Russia’s refusal to follow the leadership of the West, and to resist attempts to strengthen multilateral sanctions, has complicated efforts to put stronger pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.  It has also meant that the E3+3 (P5+1) position in talks has been less clear than negotiators would have liked. On the eve of talks in Moscow, Shivani Handa of BASIC asks what is behind this agenda in Moscow.

Russia’s agenda at the talks between Iran and the E3+3, held in Moscow, is under scrutiny, particularly with the recent return of Vladimir Putin to the Presidency. Divisions between the E3+3 have become more acute in 2012, with Russia and China remaining critical of unilateral economic sanctions stacked against Iran by the United States and Europe. Whilst the West continues to pressure Russia to stand by the dual-track strategy, Russia itself continues to prioritise the diplomatic route with Iran, and increasing its bilateral cooperation in various (non-nuclear) fields.

Russian and Iranian Presidents, Putin and Ahmadinejad, held a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing on 7th June to discuss “mutually acceptable solutions” to Iran’s nuclear program. President Putin reiterated Russia’s support for Iran’s right to develop a civilian nuclear program, but cautioned that Russia upholds a firm commitment to non-proliferation, called upon Iran to strictly adhere to peaceful purposes. The possibility of an Iranian break-out is a major source of concern for Russian security, and Russia is just as eager as its Western counterparts to resolve any ambiguity in the Iranian program. Putin concluded with the statement “we also know your positions and the position of the entire Iranian leadership that Iran is not working on creating nuclear weapons”.

Yuri Ushakov, foreign policy advisor to Putin and former Russian Ambassador to Washington, confirmed that the Russian delegation at the Moscow talks would express this support of Iran’s right to develop its civilian programme under IAEA monitoring. This may increase tension and discord among the E3+3, and underline Iran’s incentive to cooperate. On the other hand, Peter Topychkanov of Carnegie Moscow explains that “Russia [had hoped to] use the meeting to make Iran more flexible and more open to cooperation with the IAEA” and although it is accepted that a breakthrough is unlikely, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, stated that as Iran had shown a positive attitude towards cooperation on solutions recently, he hopes that the Moscow talks will help build a stable negotiation process. He made an additional visit to Tehran the week before the E3+3 talks.

Russia is looking to build on its earlier proposal – a ‘step-by-step’ process “based on the principles of gradualism and reciprocity” which strongly hints at E3+3 compromise, specifically the gradual easing of multilateral sanctions, in return for Iran taking measures to alleviate concerns over its nuclear program (such as cooperation with the IAEA). Russian officials have stated their belief that further trade and economic sanctions against Iran, or ruling out the possibility of easing sanctions, would only further isolate and entrench Iran. Lavrov has said that it is in fact precisely the U.S. and European unilateral actions that undermine E3+3 collective efforts.

Nevertheless, Russia believes that Iran must take the first step in this reciprocal process, as a gesture of goodwill and confidence building. Vladimir Yevseyev, Director of the Public Policy Research Centre in Moscow, suggests that if Iran were to start by suspending its enrichment facilities the EU would have no choice but to make a reciprocal concession. But the Iranian enrichment program is an issue of national prestige, one that they have in the past suspended with little benefit from reciprocal moves, and so Iran would be looking for explicit and substantial concessions for this gesture, such as the recognition of its right to a civilian programme, something that is very difficult for the Obama administration to agree to at such a crucial time in US domestic politics.

The Russians will be hoping that their ‘good cop’ approach (as opposed to the pressure tactics adopted by the West) will pay off in Moscow. The Russians also hope that their proposal will aid the progress of negotiations on the most pressing subject of Iranian production of 20% enriched uranium – an issue that will most likely be the centre point of discussions in this round.

Furthermore, foreign policy analyst Alexander Konovalov asserts that Russia has only tolerated economic sanctions insofar as they have served to avoid military intervention. Russia has strongly condemned the use of force in meetings of the UN Security Council. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Russia is a close ally to Tehran (as it is with the Assad regime in Syria), due to its past military and trading ties with Iran. Rather this should be seen as opposition to external interference on behalf of a Western agenda, and upholding a more general Westphalian global order approach policed by the UN Security Council as highest authority. Russia also fears the ensuing political instability and potential for radicalism that is likely to follow conflict in the region. Russia believes that compromise by the West would be the most effective way to resolve its security concerns. In the meantime, the talks must go on to keep the possibility of military intervention off the table.

And what of Putin’s Presidency? As he has had a big role in formulating a consistent foreign policy on Iran, it seems unlikely that Russia’s policy will see much change a great deal. The latest unanticipated move, to promote the notion of enlisting Iran’s help in international attempts to resolve the Syria crisis, is consistent, both with encouraging the diplomatic track and protecting Russian interests. How this idea will affect talks over the nuclear issue remains to be seen.


Russia on the Move
Carnegie Moscow Center, June 2012

Lavrov to visit Iran ahead of Moscow talks
The Voice of Russia, June 13, 2012

Moscow Warns against ‘Unilateral Sanctions’ on Iran
RIA Novosti, June 13, 2012

России и Ирану санкции Запада не помеха
Голос России (Voice of Russia), June 8, 2012

Russia Seeks Iranian Aid in Ushering Out Syria’s Assad
Bloomberg Businessweek, June 7, 2012

Russia Supports Iran’s Right to Civil Nuclear Energy – Putin
Russia Today, June 7, 2012

Putin Prepared to Play Iran Peacemaker
The Moscow Times, June 7, 2012

China and Russia Lead Group Talks Focused on Security
BBC, June 6, 2012

Russia: No Talks With Iran On New Bushehr Unit
Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, June 5, 2012

Putin to Hold Talks with Ahmadinejad
RIA Novosti, June 3, 2012

Russia says Iran Talks on Track despite Differences
Agence France Press, via Hurriyet Daily News, May 25, 2012

Russia Opposes Iran Acquiring Nuclear Weapons
National Public Radio, May 23, 2012

Iran Nuclear Talks Day 1: Russian Calls Congress an Obstacle to a Deal
The Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2012

What Will Putin Do in Foreign Policy?
Diplomaatia, via Carnegie Moscow Center, May 2012

Iran Welcomes Russian Proposal to Restart Nuclear Talks
RIA Novosti, August 17, 2011

Russia Hopes its Proposal can Revive Iran Nuclear Talk
Reuters, August 17, 2011

For more insight and analysis, read BASIC’s This Week update on the E3+3 (P5+1) talks with Iran in Moscow on June 18-19, 2012 and BASIC’s latest Iran Update.

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