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After Moscow: Will There be War or Peace?

By Shirin Shafaie (originally published by Fair Observer)


The Russian scholar and independent analyst Dr. Nikolay Kozhanov shares his in-depth insight into the Russian approach towards the upcoming Moscow negotiations between P5+1 and Iran with Shirin Shafaie. Dr. Kozhanov was an attache at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tehran from 2006 to 2009, where he worked on Iran's nuclear issue among other socio-economic and energy-related issues. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, a scholar at the nongovernmental Institute of the Middle East and a visiting lecturer at the School of Economics of the St. Petersburg State University. Dr. Kozhanov's monograph, Economic Sanctions Against Iran: Aims, Scale and Possible Consequences, was published in Moscow in June 2011.

Shafaie: Dr. Kozhanov, you suggested in a policy analysis paper published by the Washington Institute in May 2012 that President Putin will not sacrifice Russia's relationship with the US for the sake of its strategic partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). You also said that if the US holds back on its anti-missile defence in Eastern Europe, Russia might be more cooperative with the US on Iran's nuclear issue.

Does Iran have enough reasons to trust either side when they meet in Moscow on June 18? In other words, aren't Russia and the US playing the "good cop, bad cop" game with Iran ultimately aiming at squeezing maximum concessions from one another as well as from Iran? What concrete confidence building measures has Russia envisioned to gain Iran's trust, given the bitter history of broken deals between the two countries; for example in the case of Russia's refusal to deliver S-300 systems to Iran under President Medvedev?

Kozhanov: It is necessary to recognize that the swings in Russo-Iranian relations depend on the state of US-Russian dialogue and this is quite an obvious fact. For example, the period between 2006 and 2009 saw rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran in the form of energy cooperation. It could not be a mere coincidence that this dialogue began when US-Russian ties were experiencing serious troubles. Moreover, the sweetheart relations with Iran ended not long after the start of the "reset" in Russo-American relations initiated by the Obama administration.

The proclaimed reset, which was supported by a number of practical US steps, allayed tensions between the two countries and made Moscow interested in preserving dialogue with Washington. As a result, Moscow supported UN Security Council Resolutions 1887 (in 2009) and 1929 (in 2010), adopted its own sanctions in 2010, and temporarily froze implementation of a contract on exporting S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran. Yet in 2011, the situation changed again - the reset obviously failed, and US persistence in unfolding the antimissile umbrella in Europe compelled Russia to look for asymmetric answers. Among other measures, this implied another revival of friendship with Tehran, including the supply of electronic warfare equipment to the regime. Under these circumstances, it is natural that, as you say, Washington and Moscow will try to "squeeze maximum concessions from one another as well as from Iran" while discussing the nuclear issue.

However, it is probably wrong to think that the US and Russia will be playing the "good cop, bad cop" game. In order to do this, they need to pursue the same goals in Iran and have the same motifs to settle the nuclear issue. Currently, both countries are far from this. Their positions on Iran are different. The main difference was best expressed by Russian ex-President Dmitry Medvedev: "Iran is not a US partner whereas Moscow productively interacts with this country." It is important to remember that Iran for Russia is not just another neighboring country. For the Russians, the Iranian nuclear program is traditionally overshadowed by other issues in relations between the two countries. Over the last two decades, Tehran has proved itself to be Russia's friend in times of need, by helping promote peace and stability in the Caspian littoral and in Central Asia, limiting the presence of third countries in regional affairs, counteracting human- and drug-trafficking activities, deterring the spread of internal revolutions, and by combating terrorism. Moscow also has certain economic interests in Iran. As a result, little room is left to confront Tehran over the nuclear issue.

Moscow is also not sure that there is no time left for talks with Iran. Currently, the Russian government and experts do not have an iron-clad that proves that the authorities of the IRI made a decision to create a nuclear WMD. Moreover, they believe that, from mid-range perspective, Tehran is incapable to create it, and all statements by Iranian officials are considered nothing but bravado; it represents a debatable matter which the authorities of the IRI expect to use for bargaining better conditions in its dispute with the West. As a result, the nuclear programme is currently considered to have minor threat for the Russian interests in the region.

It would also be wrong to compare the current situation with the situation of 2010 when the S-300 deal was cancelled. The period 2009-2010 was not very favorable for the Russo-Iranian relations; the idea of the reset was extremely popular in Russia and Russo-American relations were on the rise whereas the dialogue between Moscow and Tehran enjoyed the downward trend. In the second half of 2009, Russia was alerted to the sudden disclosure of Iranian plans to build a second enrichment factory. As in 2002, this raised questions among Russian politicians about the extent to which Tehran should be trusted. These concerns were strengthened in October-November 2009, when Iran suddenly refused to exchange its low-enriched nuclear fuel for high-enriched fuel to supply a Tehran research reactor under European control. Russia had actively backed the exchange deal, believing the fuel swap would not only demonstrate Iran's peaceful intentions to the West, but also allay Moscow's concerns about the possible use of low-enriched uranium for the creation of so-called "dirty bombs." Tehran's subsequent attempt to replace Russia with Turkey and Brazil as its main nuclear mediators with the West was the straw that broke the camel's back; Moscow regarded this step as contrary to its national interests and its role in the region. As a result, Russia could do nothing but support the US and EU in instituting new UN measures against Iran.

Now, the situation is different. The Russo-American relations are quite controversial. The continuing "Arab Spring" seriously undermined, if not shattered, the Russian position in the Middle East; the fall of a friendly regime in Libya, the critical situation in Syria, and the rise of Islamists in the region (first of all, in Egypt) resulted in serious political and economic loses for Russia. Under these circumstances, the possibility of the change of the political regime in Tehran or the danger of a military operation against the IRI under the pretext of a nuclear threat posed by this country to the EU, US or Israel urge the Russian government to take active and decisive steps to prevent the development of the situation upon any of the above-mentioned scenarios.

Thus, since recently, Russian officials began to actively send signals that Iran is the traditional zone of Moscow's aspirations, and that no action should be made without taking into account Russian opinion. On June 7, during the meeting with his Iranian counterpart - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Beijing - Putin called Iran an "old partner" whom Moscow was not going to leave in trouble. He warmly recollected his 2007 trip to Tehran and actually invited his vis-a-vis to Moscow. Moreover, Russian officials drew the media attention to the fact that the meeting of the two presidents was one of the most important items of the Russian president's agenda in China.

The Iranians also understand the rules of this game and play on Russian hopes and fears. Thus, in Beijing, Ahmadinejad unobtrusively reassured Moscow that it can still count on Iran in handling regional problems, including the issues of the legal status of the Caspian sea, the NATO advance to the Russian borders, and, obviously, the Syrian unrest. Tehran is also open to the deeper economic cooperation. There is, probably, only one unspoken condition posed by the Iranian authorities; Russia should help their country to change the situation around the nuclear program of Iran. And Moscow indeed wants this.

However, in order to see Russia as a reliable partner in the nuclear talks the Iranians probably should not only ask the question whether they can trust Moscow, but to think what measures should be taken by them to strengthen Russian confidence in them. Thus in Beijing, Putin clearly stated that his government will never protect Iran constructing a nuclear bomb. So far, the Russians believe that this is not on the Iranian agenda. However, the controversial outcomes of the recent IRI-IAEA consultations in June, continuing Iranian refusals to let the IAEA inspectors to visit the military facilities in Parchin, their alleged attempts to hide some signs of previous activities in the site as well as the probable attempts to enrich uranium at the level higher than 20% raise certain concerns.

Shafaie: President Putin emphasized Iran's inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear program during a meeting with President Ahmadinejad at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Beijing last week. Moreover, the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Sergei Lavrov, reiterated Russia's opposition to any further sanctions against Iran while calling them "absolutely counterproductive". Conversely, he advocated the Russian proposal for a step-by-step approach and reciprocity principles while asking Iran to make the first step before expecting any gradual lifting or freezing of the current sanctions. In the light of these statements, can you explain to me:

  • How does Russia understand the idea of reciprocity? How is that principle compatible with expecting Iran to make the "first step"?
  • In the event that Iran actually makes the first step (for example, agrees once again to voluntarily implement the Additional Protocol and/or sign the agreement with the IAEA for allowing extra legal inspections of its non-nuclear sites, particularly at Parchin), how can Russia guarantee that the US and the EU will freeze or lift their unilateral sanctions against Iran (especially against Iran's Central Bank and national oil industry)? Can Russia provide Iran with any "concrete assurances" that Iran's nuclear file will be normalized (i.e. taken back to the IAEA) and the four UN sanctions gradually lifted?

Kozhanov: First of all, it is necessary to make a short note - Putin asserted Iran's inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear program only if it will be put under the complete control of the IAEA. The Russian government severely opposes Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, believing that such a development would drastically change the balance of power in the region, and not in Moscow's favor. As stated by some government experts, a nuclear Iran could be expected to conduct more aggressive and independent policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and to serve as an example for Middle Eastern countries with less stable regimes thinking about developing their own weapons of mass destruction. That is why the control of the IAEA over the Iranian nuclear program is a must for Moscow.

Russian understanding of reciprocity does not differ much from that of Europeans and, possibly, Americans; positive and practical steps of Iran will cause the adequate positive reaction of the P5+1 members. However, Moscow stresses that it is not only the UN sanctions which should be revised in case of the positive Iranian behavior, but unilateral measures as well. The reason why Iran is expected to make the first step is, probably, the following: Moscow clearly sees the mistrust existing between Iran and the West and clearly realizes that someone should take the first step to change the situation. Presumably, it is easier for Moscow to persuade the Iranians to do this rather than, let's say, the Europeans. This step would allow Russia not only to prove that the negotiations are the only solution, but to discuss the revision of existing sanctions. The Russian authorities believe that further unilateral punitive measures against Iran are useless as they are not strengthening the non-proliferation regime in the region but aimed at the change of the political regime in Tehran. On the contrary, the Russians are convinced that the first positive move by Iran could logically pose a question concerning the necessity of the further economic sanctions as a reciprocal response. I am afraid that in this situation no guarantees could be given that the other members of the P5+1 group will be enthusiastic to act, but there is also no other way to find this out.

Shafaie: As a signatory to the NPT and under the IAEA Statute, Iran has an inalienable right to enrich uranium on its soil for peaceful purposes. Moreover, there has not been any shred of evidence to date suggesting that Iran has diverted any of its nuclear material to military purposes. Yet, Iran's nuclear file was reported to the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2006 and Resolution 1696 was adopted against Iran which demands the suspension of uranium enrichment for the first time. You mentioned earlier that Russia supported the US in the UNSC in a period of amicable relations between the two. What might have been the concessions that Russia gained from the US in that period in return for support at the UNSC against Iran?

Kozhanov: Well, I am afraid that my vision of the Iranian nuclear program perspectives is slightly different from yours, but I would prefer not to go too deep into it. I also cannot call the UNSC resolutions baseless. The reasons for their adoption are clearly stated in these documents.

From my point of view, at the first turn, Iran has certain problems not with the direct accusations voiced by some countries (you are right here; so far, the Russian authorities have not received any tangible evidence from their P5+1 partners which supports their accusations against Iran), but with the issue of building confidence in the international community regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of Tehran's nuclear program. And there are certain reasons for having some doubts and suspicions. First of all, almost all the P5+1 members agree that, at a certain stage, Iran was working on a military nuclear program, and Iranian authorities have not yet answered all questions regarding this allegation. Secondly, the majority of countries which have ever had a nuclear program have also conducted parallel military studies. The latter either provided them with a nuclear arsenal or brought them to a stage where they could easily manufacture an atomic bomb if they decided to do so.

So far, there are no guaranties that Tehran will not revive (or start from the scratch) its military program, if it considers this necessary. Even Moscow is worried about this. Accordingly, in one of his interviews the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated that Russia is "concerned with the shrinking distance which separates Iran from the hypothetical possession of technologies allowing the creation of a nuclear weapon." However, and this is the third point that I would like to make here, a revival of Iran's more active cooperation with the IAEA along with Tehran's decision to agree to put its nuclear program under the complete supervision of the IAEA (which would include the implementation of the Additional Protocol) and finally clarification of all existing questions regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program would allay international concerns. However, the Islamic Republic persistently avoids doing so and, thus, it weakens the position of its international partners and its opponents with additional excuses. In this case, the logic of opponents is simple: if you have nothing to hide, you will have nothing to be afraid of.

As for the Russo-American dialogue on Iran, you should not think about this process as a deal made in the Tehran Grand Bazaar when one person (Russia) is selling an item (Iran) to another (the US). Since the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement of 1995, Russia has never tried to directly trade the IRI for any concessions from the US. And it is hard to imagine that it ever will - the current political realities are different from those of the 1990s.

The influence of the Russo-American dialogue regarding the relations between Moscow and Tehran is rather complicated. Thus, it is necessary to recognise that the political elites of Russia and Iran each have different perceptions of the US; for Tehran, America is an ideological arch-enemy with whom reconciliation is a complicated question, whereas for Moscow, Washington is an important international player whose behaviour does not always correspond with Russian national interests. In this situation, Moscow is more flexible and ready to engage in a dialogue with the US so long as the American authorities demonstrate a constructive approach towards the resolution of irritations between the two countries. In other words, it is important that Americans show their readiness for an effective dialogue with Russia on any of the most glaring issues - including the deployment of antimissile systems in Eastern Europe, the presence of third powers in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the limitation of NATO's eastward advance, and the construction of oil and gas pipelines that threaten the economic interests of the Russian political elite. Such a dialogue on these issues would most likely diminish any anti-American basis for cooperation with Tehran and compel the Russians to revise their views on the Islamic Republic.

Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that, on March 26, 2012 - after President Obama signalled that Washington plans to continue the discussion of a possible win-win solution to the missile defense issue - President Medvedev declared that the level of US-Russian relations was "the highest over the last decade," and stated his readiness to cooperate in settling the tensions with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Russo-Iranian relations are also influenced by Tehran's attempts to improve its relations with the US. Russian authorities and analysts believe that any US-Iranian rapprochement would constitute a serious threat to Russia's own presence in Iran. As a result, any sign of such reconciliation would cause immediate intensification of dialogue between Russia and Iran. For instance, official and semi-official contacts between Washington and Tehran during 1998-2000 led to the signing of Moscow's Treaty with Iran in 2001 (i.e. the Treaty on basic principles of cooperation signed in 2001 by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Muhammad Khatami which is, now, considered as a cornerstone of the Russo-Iranian relations).

However, Russo-American relations are not the only factor influencing the dialogue between Moscow and Tehran. I have already mentioned that there is a number of cases where Russia and the IRI enjoy fruitful cooperation, and this cooperation will never allow Moscow to join the anti-Iranian camp without having very serious reasons to do so (for example, in the event of a sudden discovery of an undeclared nuclear arsenal in the IRI).

Shafaie: And do you think that Russia now regrets having voted for the UNSC resolutions which adopt binding punitive measures against Iran in the absence of "a threat to peace" determination by the Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter? What mechanisms are in place to revert a UNSC resolution once it becomes clear that it requires extra-legal and illegitimate demands from a country?

Kozhanov: No, Russia does not regret that. As I have already explained to you Moscow's support for the UN resolutions, especially Resolution 1929 (in 2010) mainly resulted from a number of steps taken by Tehran itself. Here I am referring to the sudden disclosure of Iran's plans for building a second enrichment facility and Tehran's refusal to exchange its low-enriched uranium with nuclear fuel in October-November 2009, a proposal which was dearly supported by Russia and Tehran's decision to replace Russia with Turkey and Brazil as its main nuclear mediators with the West in May 2010. Moscow regarded this step as contrary to its national interests and its role in the region. As a result, Russia could do nothing but support the US and EU in instituting new UN measures against Iran as well as adoption of their own unilateral sanctions

On September 22, 2010, Medvedev issued Decree 1154, "On Measures to Fulfill UNSC Resolution 1929." Most of the decree's wording was based on the resolution. For instance, Russia imposed serious restrictions on the provision of banking, insurance, transit, and transport services to Iranian individuals and entities involved in the country's proliferation, nuclear, and missile activities. Targeted Iranians were also prohibited from investing in the Russian economy or acquiring Russian technologies necessary for the development of the above-mentioned programs. Russian authorities reserved the right to inspect suspicious goods transported to/from Iran and to coordinate their activities in this field with other countries. The most effective measures implemented by Moscow were related to military cooperation. Russian companies were barred from selling or transferring tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery systems, rockets, rocket systems, ships, military helicopters, and certain other aircraft to Iran. Special emphasis was placed on suspending sales of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems.

Despite the fact that Russia's sanctions only repeated passages of Resolution 1929, their implementation was a serious signal to Tehran. Previously Russia had never officially adopted any unilateral punitive measures against the Islamic Republic. At the same time, however, Moscow was not persistent in pressuring Iran and gradually softened its position. It did not implement its unilateral sanctions immediately. The Iranians were given some time to adjust their cooperation with Russia to fulfill the requirements of the UN resolutions and other punitive measures. For instance, the Moscow branch of Iran's Bank Melli was swiftly renamed "Mir Business Bank," and Tehran resumed studying the use of rubles instead of dollars/euros in bilateral trade with Russia.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of 2011, Russia resumed its attempts to settle the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program. In July of that year, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered Iran and the P5+1 a phased plan of actions that would allow gradual settlement of the issue. This initiative was cautiously accepted by the West and warmly welcomed by Iran. Although the proposal was not put into action, Moscow continued to support Iran and the West towards the initiation of a new round of dialogues. Moreover, Tehran has recently voiced its interest in returning to Lavrov's initiative.

All in all, Russia is following one main principle - as soon as the international concerns on Iran's nuclear program are resolved, it will be a high time to revise the UNSC resolutions. However, the main problem for Iran is currently not the UN sanctions (the mechanism of their cancelation is clear - just have a look at the similar cases in the Security Council), but unilateral punitive measures whose revision solely depends on the political will of the countries who have adopted them.

Shafaie: Speaking of international concerns over the issue of nuclear-proliferation in the Middle East, can you tell me about Russia's stance on the sole nuclear-armed entity in this region? Does Russia ever press Israel to join the NPT as a Non-Nuclear-Weapon State to allow a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone to come into being?

Kozhanov: Russia completely supports the idea of the creation of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East. And that is where the Russian position is extremely close to the position of Iran. Moscow is also extremely persistent and active in persuading both regional and non-regional countries to accept the necessity of the practical implementation of this plan. However, I feel that I do not have enough information to discuss in which way this issue is raised in the Russo-Israel dialogue. I believe that if it has not been raised yet, it will be definitely discussed in the future. At the same time, I would not be expecting Israel to be "pressed" by Moscow. I believe that Russian diplomacy will be more flexible. As in the case of Iran, the nuclear issue is overshadowed by other items of interest in the Russo-Israel dialogue.

Shafaie: Finally, how would you predict the outcome of the Moscow Talks? Could there be an optimal solution for all sides?

Kozhanov: As I have previously mentioned, the Russians believe that Iran should make the first practical step towards the P5+1 group. Accordingly, during the recent SCO Summit, Russia offered an incentive to the Iranian authorities. President Putin stated that the international community should allow Tehran to develop its peaceful nuclear program including its uranium enrichment program under the complete supervision of the IAEA. However, the remaining big question is whether Iran actually believes that Russians truly want this and whether the other (at least the European) P5+1 members support this initiative or not.

Apart from this, as stated by the prominent Russian expert Vladimir Sazhin, it is necessary to take into account the domestic situation in the US and IRI as well when thinking about the outcome of Moscow Talks. Both countries are expected to hold their presidential elections in the near future (the US in 2012 and Iran in 2013), and the room for maneuver is seriously limited for their political leaders. Any initiating action can improve the chances of their political opponents (Ahmadinejad is not supposed to run for elections, but he will probably try to squeeze his protege into the presidential position). As a result, Sazhin believes that the authorities of each country will probably try to maintain the status quo until 2013. In this situation, no breakthrough in Moscow is expected, although the Russians presumably will try hard to achieve it.

Shafaie: Dr. Kozhanov, thank you very much for sharing your insight with us.

With special thanks to Mr Ignaty Dyakov for arranging this interview.

... Payvand News - 06/16/12 ... --

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