Crimea crisis could reduce sanctions pressure on Iran

As a short round of nuclear talks wound up Wednesday in Vienna, much of the world media’s focus has remained on the East-West standoff over Crimea. For Iran watchers, that has posed the question of whether the fallout from the Ukraine crisis will affect Russia’s behavior in multilateral negotiations with Iran.

For now, it appears that the impact on the talks themselves has been negligible. Catherine Ashton, the chief European negotiator, told reporters that the discussions had been “substantive and useful” and that negotiators from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) would meet their Iranian counterparts again in Vienna next month.

Having achieved an interim accord last November, negotiators have made some progress but remain far from resolving the complex technical issues that make a long-term agreement, in the words of a senior Obama administration official, akin to a “Rubik’s Cube.”

A more worrisome impact of the Ukraine crisis, however, may be that Russia is tempted to soften its compliance with multilateral sanctions against Iran if the United States and the European Union escalate what so far have been limited measures to punish about two dozen Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians for Russia’s reabsorption of Crimea. This becomes more likely if, as now seems probable, a long-term nuclear accord with Iran has not been achieved by July 20, at which point last year’s interim deal would have to be renewed if negotiations are to continue.

Russia’s continued status in international affairs despite the collapse of the Soviet Union stems from its vast size, its natural resources — especially gas and oil — its possession of nuclear weapons and the veto power it holds as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Moscow values its role as a member of the P5+1, which has been negotiating with Iran since the latter days of the George W. Bush administration, and opposes Iran becoming another nuclear power in its backyard.

“In the last few years, Russia has been a constructive player in P5+1 negotiations with Iran,” says Robert Einhorn, a former senior nonproliferation expert in the Obama and Clinton administrations and now at the Brookings Institution.

Russia, Einhorn told Al Jazeera in an email, “doesn’t want instability or military conflict in its neighborhood and therefore has strongly supported a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis. And while it opposes sanctions as a matter of principle, it has essentially acquiesced in international sanctions against Iran, because it knows they motivate Iran to reach an agreement.”

All sanctions erode over time, however, and there have already been reports that Russia might stretch the limits of the sanctions relief provided to Tehran by the November interim accord to swap goods for Iranian oil. Einhorn agrees that “Russia might now be tempted to retaliate against Western sanctions against Russia on the Crimea issue by taking steps to undercut sanctions against Iran.” But the counterargument, he notes, is that easing sanctions pressure “would reduce chances for a diplomatic solution on Iran, which would not be in Russia’s interest.”

Some commentators have suggested that Russia — which has traditionally held a less alarmist assessment than the West of the imminence of the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons — may seek to ease the terms for an accord with Iran, and to benefit from the rift with the West to shore up relations with Tehran. Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian has argued that “if the Ukrainian crisis continues and Iran faces excessive demands and pressure from the West during the nuclear negotiations, Russia will move closer to Iran and the two states could form a power pole in the region.” Mousavian wrote that China could also draw closer to Iran and Russia.

Beijing, however, abstained on a Security Council resolution condemning Russia over its Crimea annexation.

Iran, for its part, is seeking to restore commercial ties with Europe and the United States as part of a nuclear agreement and to lessen its dependence on Russia and China, which has deepened as a result of Western sanctions. Tehran also knows that Washington is the key to an accord and that any Russian efforts to soften terms would be opposed by France, Britain and Germany.

Commentary in the Iranian media on the Ukraine crisis has highlighted a division between those who fear a demonstration of people power in Tehran, similar to the one that brought down President Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, and those who argue that Russia violated international law by intervening militarily on a neighboring country’s sovereign territory.

Iran has been the victim of Russian land grabs in the past. The 1813 treaty of Gulistan and the 1828 treaty of Turkmenchay saw the Persian Empire give up Armenia, Dagestan, Georgia and part of Azerbaijan. After World War II, the Soviet Union snatched the piece of Azerbaijan that lies inside Iran’s borders, only to relinquish it under U.S. pressure.

Still, Iranian media have blamed NATO and the EU for provoking the current crisis by interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs. “Russian moves in Crimea disrupted NATO calculations,” wrote Resalat newspaper in an editorial on Tuesday that was translated by the Mideast Mirror service. Even the normally pro-West Sharq newspaper praised President Vladimir Putin for showing “a strong will to use all necessary tools to defend Russian interests.” Sharq continued, though, that “the U.S. and Europe will focus on diplomatic tools, because they, as well as Russia, are aware of common threats. Based on their experience over the past two decades, they know how to exercise self-restraint to manage the situation.”

Russian officials have certainly sought to dampen concerns that the Ukraine crisis will affect the nuclear talks. In an interview with the Iran Student News Agency, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Levan Jagarian, said he was more optimistic than ever about a final accord, and promised that “Russia, just like before, will play an active and constructive role in the talks.”

Jagarian also said that Putin and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani “have reached an agreement for the signing” of the $1.5 billion oil swap that has been reported in the press, but that “negotiations over this agreement are continuing because the contents of the deal are complex.” On that much, U.S. and Russian officials appear to still be in agreement.

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