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March 31, 2014

Russia Standoff Unlikely to Undermine Iran Nuclear Talks


Washington, DC – “If you look at the range of common interests between the U.S. and Iran, it is a long and important list,” observed Representative Earl Blumenauer, speaking at a National Iranian American Council briefing for Congressional staff last week. “That’s why I’ve been so pleased that we’ve had this glimmer of opportunity for a diplomatic alternative,” Blumenauer remarked, calling the opening with Iran, “one of the key foreign policy issues of our time.”

Speaking on the event’s panel were Iran analyst Bijan Khajehpour and former Italian Ambassador to Iran Roberto Toscano, who focused their remarkson  nuclear negotiations in the context of recent tensions between Russia and the West. The panelists agreed that the Russia standoff will have a minimal impact on Iran’s core calculations given that the Rouhani’s administration’s success is largely contingent on securing a nuclear deal that deescalates tensions with the U.S.

“Iran knows very well that the chance for normalization with world doesn’t go through Moscow,” said Toscano. “President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif and the people with them have staked just about everything on the nuclear negotiations,” he said. “They cannot afford for it to fail.”

Khajehpour agreed, arguing that drawing closer to Russia had always been, at best, a contingency plan for Iran. While Rouhani’s camp wants a deal involving the U.S., the broader view in Iran is to also have a “plan B” based on the assumption by hardliners that the U.S. will ultimately refuse to accept a deal or deliver on sanctions relief. In that case,Khajehpour said, their plan is leverage such a failure to convince the EU that the U.S. is the intransigent party and economic relations with Iran should be reestablished.

Khajehpour said that Iran had only planned to focus on Russia as a plan C “if everything else fails,” but given Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the perception now is that “you can’t trust the Russians.” Instead, he said, “you have to make sure plan A or plan B actually works.”

Given Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, Toscano said the standoff with Russia may enable Iran to offer its significant gas reserves in an effort to rekindle relations with Europe if a U.S.-led nuclear deal does not materialize. However, Toscano said, in the immediate term the tensions with Russia may actually benefit nuclear negotiations by defusing political pressure on Western countries to strike a tough pose. It could “give the American side and the European side more flexibility in addressing [Iran’s] concerns” and provide more flexibility because “there are more pressing tasks.”

Khajehpour argued that, for Rouhani and Zarif, engaging the U.S. and West has been their agenda for over a decade—dismissing claims that recent sanctions were the chief driver of the administration’s negotiation posture. And, building on Blumenauer’s remarks, the panelists said that productive engagement will advance important issues beyond just the nuclear file. “Internally in Iran, these issues are linked because the same people who want to negotiate – they would like to move gradually towards a better situation in human rights,” said Toscano. “They cannot make it very explicit either, but everyone knows that. Especially the radicals know it.”

“The radicals want to kill this nuclear deal,” Toscano continued, “because they are afraid that the general atmosphere that is created once the nuclear confrontation is scaled down is a better chance for more pluralism and more human rights.”

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