In this interview, Iranian researcher Shirin Shafaie interviews Russian scholar and independent analyst Dr. Nikolay Kozhanov ahead of the next round of meetings in Moscow between the P-5+1 and Iran. As tensions rise and negotiating parties stick to their scripts, who will take the first positive step? Will Russia just stand aside and look? And will there be war or peace after Moscow?
By Shirin Shafaie, 15th June 2012
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 attaché 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 losses 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.
Watch this space for the second part of the interview
Interview originally published in the Fair Observer
Shirin Shafaie is an Iranian researcher and PhD candidate at SOAS. She was educated in Iran (BA in Philosophy and MA in Philosophy of Art) and in the UK (MSc in Middle East Politics). The core of her research is critical war studies in general and the Iran-Iraq War in particular.