Russia Direct interviewed experts to shed light on the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal for Russia-Iran relations and the situation in the Middle East.
Iranians celebrate following a landmark nuclear deal in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 14, 2015. Photo:AP
On July 14 Iran and the P5+1 reached a comprehensive agreement in Vienna on Tehran’s nuclear program, imposing significant restrictions on its development in exchange for lifting the long-standing sanctions regime.
Russia Direct interviewed experts about what the Vienna agreement means for Russia, how Russia-Iran relations will change as a consequence, and whether the balance of power in the Middle East will shift when sanctions on Iran are lifted.
Anton Khlopkov, director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS)
There are two important points that some media have not properly interpreted. First, Iran and the P5+1 countries have concluded not a classical agreement or treaty, but Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which should ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful. Second, JCPOA is not subject to being signed or ratified by the parties to the negotiation process.
At the same time every party of the talks has it part of the work to do. The main task now is for the Vienna arrangements to be executed smoothly and synchronously by all parties. Ever since the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) approved in Geneva in November 2013, Tehran has duly and punctually performed its obligations. Iran seems to be just as keen to implement the package of arrangements reached in Vienna, since it understands that sanctions could be readily reimposed and everything could turn full circle.
Russia undertook to remove excess of low-enriched uranium from Iran, and to assist in converting the Fordow uranium enrichment plant into a nuclear, physics and technology center, which will focus among other things on the medical application of nuclear technologies. It is important to note that stable isotopes are widely used in industry and medicine, including in the diagnosis of cardiovascular and cancerous diseases.
Russia will offer its experience in conversion of the Fordow facility within the framework of the deal. For Russia, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) depositary, the fact that one of the most serious crises in the area of nuclear non-proliferation was resolved through international efforts is key. It creates a positive background for strengthening the non-proliferation regime and for new attempts to resolve other crises in the sphere of non-proliferation and security, particularly on the Korean peninsula.
Diplomacy was instrumental in securing the deal on Iran’s nuclear program. At the turn of 2011-2012, following the publication in November 2011 of a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran, heavily based on intelligence provided by Western countries, mostly by the U.S., the crisis was close to evolving from a political and diplomatic into a military one. There were fears that an incident at sea between the Iranian navy and a Western navy could inadvertently escalate the crisis into a full-scale military operation.
That was not in Russia’s interests, given the proximity of Iran’s borders and the general chaos in the Middle East. The deal on Iran is a measure of how political and diplomatic tools can be effective in resolving non-proliferation crises.
Andrei Baklitsky, director of the Nuclear Nonproliferation and Russia program at the PIR Center for Policy Studies
Iran is a member of OPEC and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but not a member of a large regional body. Following this final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and the lifting of sanctions this summer, nothing can prevent its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Iran could even join the SCO earlier than India and Pakistan, since unlike them it has no conflict with any existing members. Unlike the Arab monarchies, with which Tehran has thorny relations, the country has well-established political and economic ties with its eastern neighbors and no conflicts.
Like other SCO members, Iran borders the Caspian Sea. China’s “One Belt One Road” project geographically touches Iran too, hence the country’s interest in strengthening relations with its neighbors and membership of the SCO. Participation in regional organizations will allow Tehran to discuss and resolve with its neighbors the issues of security, counter-terrorism, drug trafficking and the situation in Afghanistan—all of which can safeguard the country’s eastern borders.
Through SCO membership China and India are looking to keep hold of Iran. The lifting of sanctions will open up the Iranian market, whereupon Tehran will be able to do business with Europe and the United States. To keep Iran in the orbit of China, Russia and India and actively involve it in Central Asian affairs, it is logical to accept it into the SCO. If the course adopted by President Hassan Rouhani continues, the country will be less in conflict with its neighbors, and the next SCO summit could see Tehran become a member of the organization.
Yuri Fedorov, international security expert
The Vienna arrangements with respect to Iran are the first step in reformatting the entire system of international relations in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf and adjacent regions.
It is perhaps the result of the major changes taking place in the Iranian political class, a kind of "Iranian perestroika." Iran's new course departs from the extreme ideological foreign policy of the past in favor of partnerings with the West, primarily the United States.
It is not ruled out that in the coming years Iran-U.S. relations could start to resemble those during the reign of the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
For Moscow, the Vienna accords are a foreign policy defeat. In no time at all, Iran will become an international supplier of oil and gas, comparable to Russia. This will naturally undermine Russia’s positions in the global energy markets.
Iran possesses the world’s largest proven reserves of gas and the fourth largest of oil, ahead of Russia on both indicators. Hydrocarbon development and production in Iran will require less capital and less complex technology than in Russia. If the nuclear agreement is not derailed, capital investments will begin to flow, green and brown fields will come on stream, and a gas pipeline through Turkey to Europe and liquefied natural gas plants on the coast of the Persian Gulf will be built.
In light of this, the impact of the agreement on the dynamics of oil prices in the coming months will be less about the arrival of several hundred thousand barrels a day of new Iranian oil on the world market, and more about the political and psychological factors. In other words, oil prices will take into account the general trend toward further diversification of oil and gas sources.
Acting in unison, Tehran and Washington could be a key factor in the development of events in the Middle East, at least to the east of the Suez Canal. This informal alliance could one day be joined by Israel. But the main point is that one of the arguments long used to scare the West into maintaining cooperation with the Kremlin, despite its war in Georgia and aggression in Ukraine, is no longer on the international agenda.
Stanislav Pritchin, expert at the Center for Central Asian and Caucasian Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
The Vienna arrangements are unlikely to seriously alter Iran’s stance in the negotiations on the status of the Caspian Sea. Although it is worth noting that under President Hassan Rouhani, Tehran has become more flexible and more attuned to the constructive resolution of conflicting views.
But the overall abatement of tension over Iran will remove some of the constraints that have hindered cooperation between the Caspian countries. Sanctions have prevented non-cash payments between Iran and its neighbors, despite numerous joint projects and the desire to cooperate, and that in turn has impeded the positive dynamics of mutual trade.
When sanctions on Iran are lifted, we will see an increase in trade and the implementation of many joint projects in the Caspian region that were mothballed due to restrictions.
Yulia Sveshnikova, policy analyst at the Islamic Renaissance Front in Malaysia
Iran has done all it can to make the talks as “nail-biting” as possible and to present the deal itself as the event of the century. Indeed, despite abandoning its “red lines,” Iran undoubtedly emerges as the winner, although perhaps only in the short term.
Now the talk will be of unfreezing the arms embargo and the possibility still of keeping a nuclear program. Iran received a kind of recognition, and that is what matters most - the recognition of its right to peaceful enrichment of uranium, and also the opportunity to improve its global image, important for ordinary Iranians, and restore national dignity, which will be measured in elementary things such as the lifting of heavy restrictions on visas, employment and bank accounts. It is a victory for the team of negotiators and for the moderate government led by Rouhani.
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However, Iran is home not only to moderates, but also spiritual leaders and institutions that oppose the deal and its possible consequences for the unaligned image of the regime. This leaves a window open to speculation about whether the deal really does mark an historical event.
Potential dissent from the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, will not be a major issue. One problematic scenario is if opponents of the deal inside the political elite decide to stretch their nuclear ambitions slightly more than the agreement provides for, having naturally taken all necessary precautions in advance.
Or, if no one inside Iran has the stomach for such adventurism, we could well see provocation from outside with a view to accusing Iran of violating the agreement and to wrecking the deal. There are plenty of potential saboteurs, starting with Israel and the Gulf states, headed by Saudi Arabia. On July 14, 2015, the world made a contribution not to preserving nuclear non-proliferation, but to changing the geopolitical balance in the Middle East, greatly vexing the major losers, Riyadh and Tel Aviv, in the process.
All this creates the impression that if the deal does not collapse in the early stages of approval by the legislative bodies of Iran and the United States (which is unlikely), the subsequent course of events could lead some to consider the “hottest” of all the options that were on the table during negotiating process. Immediately after the joint statement by Mohammed Javad Zarif and Federica Mogherini, President Rouhani solemnly declared that the deal was just the beginning. Indeed it is, but of what? In my opinion, it is the beginning of a very troubled period, every stage of which will be fraught with provocation and disruption.
For Russia, meanwhile, alongside the ups (expanded military-technical cooperation) and downs (greater competition in the oil and gas sector, and potential rapprochement between Iran and the West), the resolution of the conflict represents a diplomatic triumph. In fact, it was the “Lavrov Plan”—based on the principles of incrementalism and reciprocity, and formally rejected by the United States—that ended up being the basis of the negotiations. Overall Russia showed itself to be a strong and independent player, perhaps with the exception of the tactful cancellation of S-300 deliveries to Iran against the backdrop of the Russian-U.S. “reset.”