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Russia's Stake in Iran Nuclear Deal

FILE - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enter a hall for their talks in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 29, 2014.
FILE - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enter a hall for their talks in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 29, 2014.

President Barack Obama said Russia was a "help" in securing the deal to limit Iran's nuclear program.

In addition to that praise, printed in the New York Times, Obama talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone Wednesday, thanking Putin for Russia's role in the negotiations.

Simon Saradzhyan, a researcher at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, said Obama was underestimating the role Russia played in securing the agreement.

For starters, Saradzhyan said, Moscow refrained from vetoing the U.N. sanctions that ultimately forced Iran to “negotiate in earnest.”

“This deal would not have happened if Russia had not supported it,” Saradzhyan said.

Russia's motivations

He also said that while Moscow’s relations with the West have deteriorated over Ukraine, Russia sees preventing the emergence of another nuclear armed power near its borders as a vital national interest.

“Especially if that neighbor has had a long history of competing with Russia for control of territories and influence in such strategically important areas as the South Caucasus,” Saradzhyan said.

Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, said, “At the end of the day, Russia does not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons."

“So they basically share with the other P5 nations and Germany the interest in trying to freeze Iran’s nuclear program," Pifer said.

Saradzhyan said Russia also feared the U.S. and some of its allies might take military action against Iran if the nuclear talks failed, which would have “a strong destabilizing impact on regional security.”

Moscow, he added, also worried about the possibility of “regime change” in Iran, which would create “another pressure point on Russia in what its leadership sees as a wide-ranging competition with the West for influence over Russia’s neighbors.”

Valuable contribution

Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, agreed that “the most valuable Russian contribution” to the Iran nuclear deal was “refraining from playing the role of a spoiler.”

Baev noted that while Putin in April lifted Russia’s self-imposed embargo on delivering S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, Moscow did not move forward with the deliveries. (Russia announced in June that it would deliver the S-300s sometime next year. Tehran signed an $800 million contract for them in 2007.)

Baev said Moscow's decision not to derail the Iranian nuclear agreement was largely the result of outside pressure.

“I think the main influence was China, which wanted the deal to be concluded and now aims at expanding the energy business with Iran,” Baev said. “Firmly expressed wishes from Beijing cannot be ignored by Moscow in the present state of Russia-China relations.”

Oil revenues

Some analysts predict that if Iran, with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, fully reenters the international energy markets, this will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy, already battered by low world oil prices and economic sanctions over Ukraine.

"If all goes full speed, then Iran, as a serious competitor to Russia, will have big advantages in the oil trade,” Georgy Mirsky, a professor at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, told VOA’s Russian service.

Mirsky said Russia can partially offset these losses of oil market share by selling arms to Iran once the U.N. arms embargo is lifted.

He also said that Moscow can gain diplomatically with both Iran and the West – by stressing to Iran the role it played in getting the sanctions lifted and while stressing to the West that it supported the efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Harvard’s Saradzhyan said Russia and Iran “need each other” to protect transit corridors in the Caspian Sea region, prevent NATO from expanding into the South Caucasus region and ensure “stability” in Central Asia.

“Of course, it is important for Russia that Iran not only doesn’t gravitate toward the West, but also doesn’t become a spoiler in Russia’s own North Caucasus by supporting Islamist insurgency there,” he said.

Influence to wane

Baev, on the other hand, believes Russia’s influence with Iran is now likely to wane.

“As for the nature of Russia-Iran relations – well, it was easy for Moscow to play the role of ‘good neighbor’ when Iran was isolated," he said.

"But it is now far more important for Tehran to cultivate ties with China, India, and Turkey, and to downplay its opposition to U.S. ‘hegemony.' So I cannot see any benefit from this deal for bilateral (Russian-Iranian) ties," Baev said.

Alexei Malashenko, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees that Russian-Iranian relations are likely to cool.

"Russia has always positioned itself as a friend of Iran, as a mediator in the negotiations – in any case, it had a status different from the other countries involved,” Malashenko told VOA’s Russian service.

“Iran always looked at this quite favorably, but after the signing (of the nuclear agreement), the Iranians' need for Russia will not be as great as it was, and Iran will take steps toward the West. And anything aimed at rapprochement with the West is regarded negatively in Russia," he said.

Still, Pifer, of the Brookings Institution, said Iran will remain important for Russia geopolitically – as an “entry point” to the Middle East.

“If you’re looking at the broader section of the Middle East – from the Mediterranean to, say, Pakistan – Iran is kind of the best Russian entry point,” he said.

“You could argue Syria is (that entry point), but Syria is such a mess. So I think geopolitically they see the possibility to cultivate a relationship with Iran that will have benefits in terms of a presence in that area," Pifer added.