How Has Russia Used the Iranian Nuclear Crisis to Achieve Its Goals in Ukraine?
While Russia's occupation of Ukraine has posed the most significant security challenge to Europe since World War II, the eighth round of Iran's nuclear talks with world powers in Vienna has reached a tipping point. Russia's role in both of these issues is highly central. It is obvious that from the perspective of the international system, the scope of influence of both crises is very significant. On the one hand, Russia initiated the Ukraine war under the pretext and justification of security defense strategy in the face of NATO enlargement; on the other hand, as a permanent member of the Security Council, it plays a prominent role in the Iranian nuclear issue. In fact, Russia, both through direct involvement in the construction of the nuclear infrastructure and as a broker in the negotiations between Iran and the West, is one of the main players in the Iranian nuclear issue. From an analytical perspective, these two seemingly separate crises share a common ground and connection; and the question arises, in particular, how has Russia leveraged its role in the Iranian nuclear issue to advance its expansionist agenda in Ukraine?
Promoting Russia's Status as an International Power
The development of Iran's nuclear program and its transformation into a crisis in Iran-West relations provided Moscow with an opportunity to be recognized by the West as an ally in preventing nuclear proliferation; meanwhile, Russia has increased its influence in Iran as a strategic partner and has consistently positioned itself in Tehran's decision-making circles as a balancing actor vis-à-vis the West. During recent years, Moscow has gained a degree of influence by alliance-making in Iran's security and military decision-making institutions and dividing Iran's power structure to the extent that any solution to Iran's nuclear crisis seems almost impossible unless Moscow is involved. In November 2014, as more than 45,000 Russian troops deployed to Ukraine's borders and were arming separatists, the New York Times reported Russia's key role in advancing the nuclear talks. After negotiations reached an impasse over a dispute about Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, Russia proposed receiving the Iranian uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons production, and converting it into nuclear fuel that can only be used in the Bushehr Reactor. Putin used this trump card to persuade the Obama administration in 2014 to ignore the presence of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. "Russia's constructive role in resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis and securing world peace and security" was so pronounced that in July 2015, Obama praised Putin for his important role in the Iran Nuclear Deal. The Kremlin also highlighted Moscow's status as an international power, stating that the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue would help reinforce the nuclear non-proliferation regime and reduce tensions in the Middle East. However, after meeting with Qasem Soleimani, then-commander of the IRGC's Quds Forces, Putin sought to use Iranian-affiliated Shi'ite militias to strengthen Russia's position in Syria and the region.
Counter-Sanctions Strategy and Demonstrating the Failure of Sanction Regimes
One of Putin's instruments for achieving geopolitical expansionism in Ukraine is the counter-sanctions strategy that his government has pursued for years. Economic analysts use the term "Fortress Russia" to refer to Russia's fiscal policy and counter-sanctions strategy. Moscow's strategy includes a range of economic measures from the development of the dairy industry to the development of a financial messaging system and to the increase of the central bank's gold and foreign exchange reserves to absorb financial shocks that may be inflicted as a result of Russia's military campaign. Interestingly, after the occupation of Crimea, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, with the help of experts from the Russian Academy of Foreign Trade, decided to analyze how the mechanism of sanctions had been applied around the world over the past 70 years. It concluded that studying the mechanism of sanctions and their consequences on the Iranian model would be of great importance to Russia. This was due to; firstly, the most severe sanctions have been imposed on Iran and, secondly, the Russian and Iranian economies are highly dependent on hydrocarbon exports. Therefore, the consequences of imposing sanctions on Russia can be better predicted through the example of Iran rather than China or Cuba. Accordingly, the Russians have learned lessons from the way Iran has resisted sanctions and drawn on them to develop their own counter-sanctions measures.
Moreover, Moscow has noted that if the sanctions policy against Iran appears to be effective, the West could use a similar set of policies to isolate Moscow, where it to decide to target Russia. Thus, while Russia has used the Iran card as a bargaining chip in its political and security interactions with the West and has not vetoed any sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, it has sought to weaken and thwart the sanction regime against Tehran.
Energy Security and Monopoly Over the European Gas Supply
Over the years, Putin has, on the one hand, prepared Russia's economy for a military confrontation with the West on the Ukrainian ground and, on the other hand, sought to maintain his monopoly on the European energy market and keep European countries dependent on Russian gas. In fact, Europe has long sought to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, and the Russians are well aware that there is a real opportunity to do so once the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved and Iran's relations with Europe normalize. The lifting of Iran's nuclear sanctions and Iran's free entry into the oil and gas market, along with challenging Russia's monopoly on European gas supplies, will lower world oil and gas prices. In terms of gas reserves, Iran ranks second in the world after Russia - these reserves amount to 34 trillion cubic meters or about 17% of world reserves. According to estimates by the Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation, the lifting of sanctions against Iran could have significant adverse consequences for the Russian economy. The head of Russia's National Energy Security Fund, Konstantin Simonov, has expressed the view that Europe does not base its gas purchases on economic considerations but rather on political calculations - and in this sense, Iran is indeed a dangerous competitor for Russian gas. Therefore, if sanctions restrictions on Iranian energy exports are lifted as part of the deal between Iran and the West over its nuclear program, the transit of Iranian gas through Türkiye to Europe, as well as cooperation with Qatar and Spain in exporting LNG, will weaken Russia's leverage over Europe.
A look at the details of the leaked interview of then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about Moscow's hindering role in the nuclear negotiations reinforces the argument that the continuation of the current tense situation between the West and Iran is the most favorable and pragmatic scenario for Russia; therefore, in the crucial and challenging days of the resolution of the nuclear dispute, Moscow would take the necessary measures in this regard.
Finally, it should be noted that while "a nuclear Iran" may be at odds with Moscow's interests, however, "the threat of Iran's nuclearization" has created a crisis that Russia has been able to leverage against the West in recent years, particularly through its influence over highest decision-making bodies in Tehran coupled with its role in the management of this crisis. Now that the latest round of Iranian nuclear talks is taking a more irreconcilable turn, with the Russian occupation of Ukraine bringing Putin to a strategic deadlock and the Kremlin being pressured by the West, it does not seem that Putin would lose the Iran card.