More than just an effort to force acquiescence to Russia’s expansionist efforts in the region, the Gazprom situation can be read as a thinly veiled threat to Europe. Russia’s Deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovski has warned of a potential slowdown in exports to European nations, which receive 53 percent of their Russian gas through the Ukrainian pipelines. Yanovski specifically pointed out that certain countries, namely those in and near the Balkans, may be cut off completely since all of their Russian energy resources are imported via Ukraine.
The ongoing crisis gives Iran further opportunities to exploit its geopolitical position in between Europe and Asia. Whether Russia realizes it or not, it is giving the West even greater incentive to treat Iran with kid gloves while nuclear negotiations continue, with Russia as one of the negotiating powers. The Wall Street Journal reports that Europe is looking to Iran as a potential ally as it tries to reign in Russian President Vladmir Putin’s expansionist ambitions.
What’s more, on Saturday Iran reportedly discussed expanded trade ties with Slovenia, a nation in the very region that Russia anticipates would be most affected by a Gazprom cutoff. If the rest of Europe goes on considering a similar policy of expanded ties with Iran, it will have to carefully consider which is more dangerous – Russia’s expansionism and tight control over its energy resources, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions and efforts to expand its political reach and overall status in the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Mediterranean.
It may be difficult to analyze the relative threat of each of these adversaries, since they are so often in close cooperation. That is why it is unusual to see Russian antagonism that doesn’t seem to consider Iranian interests. The two nations have, after all, engaged in private talks about possible energy trade and barter agreements. Meanwhile, they have been partners in supporting Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War, and in generally striving to rebuff Western economic and political influence.
It is also somewhat odd that Russia would threaten to cut off oil exports to Europe when so much of its own economy depends upon those exports. While the European Union gets about a quarter of its gas from Russia, energy exports in general account for about half of Russia’s revenue. It is hard to imagine that Russia would condone the Gazprom threat unless either it has no intention of actually following through on it, or it has other potential markets for the same exports.
Iran, of course, is too rich in oil to need energy imports for domestic use, but it is just possible that it could resell energy resources on behalf of another country, especially an ally that is threatened with the same type of sanctions it has been suffering under for years.
This is only one possible route that the two countries could take in their cooperation, but the existence of that cooperation is well established. And what’s more, so are Iran’s recent efforts to secure a personal hand in the sale of foreign powers’ energy resources. Last week, Iranian officials announced that they had engaged in talks with Tunisia and Turkmenistan to help with drilling operations, as well as that plans were underway to build two pipelines to northern Iraq with which it would import crude for refinement and then export liquefied petroleum gas.
Russia may or may not be a party to these efforts to consolidate multiple petroleum sources, but in either event it would be unwise of the West to respond to the Russian threat by putting its faith in Iran. For one thing, if Iranian negotiators are aware of the likely increase in demand for Iranian oil, they will be able to use it to push for an even more favorable nuclear deal before the July deadline. Those nuclear negotiations have already been characterized by fairly soft demands upon the Islamic nation, with considerable rewards including 2.55 billion dollars in sanctions relief so far.
For another thing, Europe has no way of really knowing how Iran will respond to attempts to court it as an alternative to Russia. The nuclear talks have recently entered rocky territory that suggests to some observers that Iran does not really want a deal. And regardless of how pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani is willing to be in exploiting Western goodwill, hardliners in the Iranian Parliament, clergy, and Revolutionary Guard have recently made various incisive, adversarial remarks about the West, and to it.
All of this may just signal different strategies from different parts of the Iranian government, or it may indicate that a strategy of stalling for time is coming to an end, and that Iran is ready to give up its feigned diplomacy and focus its trade and political dealings on Russia, China, and other Asian players.
The same can be said of the broader situation with both Russia and Iran. Russia’s threats against the West may just be empty rhetoric, divorced from any thought of how Europe might react to the Ukrainian pipeline running dry. Or they may be backed by solid partnerships among other expansionist Asian dictatorships that will either obstruct alternative sources of energy, or keep the Russian resources flowing.
It is tempting to say that time will tell, but realistically the West cannot afford to wait before deciding how big a risk it is willing to take, and whether it is worth treating an dangerous enemy as a friend when he has something you need.