Isolated and Defiant Russia May Benefit from Iran Sanctions Relief

Many recent reports have pointed to the rush to invest in Iran that has been evident among some business entities and governments. Since the signing of the nuclear deal on July 14, three European nations have already sent delegations to Tehran, with two others scheduled to do so this month. Meanwhile, businesses are pulling out of Russia, partly as a result of its aggression in the Ukraine.

Thus, Russian Journalist Maxim Trudolyubov argues in the Times: “While the Iranian business climate waxes, the Russian climate will wane. The lifting of sanctions in one nation will further complicate economic conditions in the other.”

However, other perspectives may regard this argument as neglecting the potential effects of economic cooperation between Iran and Russia, in light of the former’s improved economic outlook. Indeed, the two countries have been engaged in illicit cooperation especially in very recent years, as barter and bilateral agreements allowed both to evade sanctions imposed on them by the West.

Even after the nuclear agreement goes into effect, Iran will remain subject to certain US-led sanctions related to its human rights abuses and support for terrorism. This may provide incentive for it to remain economically close to Western rivals at the same time that it seeks further entry into European markets.

But more to the point, the recent closeness between Iran and Russia, as well as between both of these nations and China, has been grounded not only in economic motives, but also ideological ones.

As the Times editorial points out, “Many Russians, both inside and outside the Kremlin, admire the Iranian way of dealing with a hostile world. They respect the country’s determination to develop its own nuclear power, regardless of widespread global opposition. And Tehran’s toughness in the face of crippling economic sanctions struck a chord with President Vladimir Putin and his supporters, who have succeeded in presenting Western sanctions over Moscow’s misdeeds in Crimea and Ukraine as a sinister attack upon their sacred motherland.”

Iran’s willingness to help Russia to maintain this strategy may depend in large part upon whether Iran’s own strategy has changed. And while the Obama administration speculates that re-entry to the global community of nations may prompt Iran to moderate from within, opponents of the nuclear deal are convinced that this is not a realistic prospect. As one piece of evidence, they point to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s speech after the signing of the nuclear agreement, in which he insisted that Iranian and American interests remain diametrically opposed and that Tehran would not cooperate with the US in any areas.

Interesting, Iran’s relationship with Russia can itself be highlighted as an example of the continuation of Iranian hostility to the West, even at a time when its trade relations are expanding. Fox News pointed out, for instance, that two Russian warships had docked in a northern Iranian port on Sunday ahead of three days of joint military exercises.

This news comes just days after it was reported that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, had visited Moscow in July, in defiance of a UN travel ban associated with Suleimani’s role as a sponsor of global terrorist operations. The meeting supposedly entailed discussion of security cooperation between the two countries, as well as the completion of arms shipments that were delayed by international pressure until the completion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, of which Russia is a part.

Continued cooperation between Tehran and Moscow serves certain defined interests of both governments, even if it takes place in defiance of newfound Western economic partnerships. The Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday that the leaders of Russia and Iran constitute the main drivers of a recent push for détente in Syria. That is, the two primary backers of the regime of Bashar al-Assad are seeking to safeguard their own interests through a political solution that keeps their ally in power.

This is at odds with Western opposition to Assad’s continued rule, but as Iran News Update previously reported, recent remarks by US President Barack Obama about the prospect for “more serious discussions” with Russia and Iran suggest that his administration may be willing to compromise on this point.

Iran is reportedly prepared to present its own outline for an end to the current crisis in Syria. The Jerusalem Post points out that Iran has not presented this plan to, much less consulted with Saudi Arabia, the other main Middle Eastern power with a stake in regional conflicts. This makes it all the more likely that the given plan will primarily reflect the interests of Assad’s backers, and will likely ignore those of the West.

Iranian-Russian agreement on these and other points of regional strategy and ideology vis-à-vis the West may raise doubts about the Times essay’s claim that Russia and Iran are poised to simply trade places. On the basis of past interactions, Tehran may have both an ideological and a strategic interest in helping Russia to weather the storm of Western sanctions and global alienation.

And the effects of the nuclear deal may give Iran some of the economic power it needs to do this. UPI reported on Tuesday that Iran’s crude oil production appears to have already risen to its highest level in two years, bringing it to about half a million barrels per day short of its output during the period before limits were place on Iranian oil exports.