Last week President Obama called Vladimir Putin of Russia to thank him for his cooperation on the Iran nuclear deal. Given current geopolitical tensions, the fact that the U.S. got Russia to agree to the deal is almost as remarkable as Iran signing on.
This morning the deal was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, including Russia. In 90 days, unless Republicans in the U.S. Congress manage to torpedo the entire process, which is highly unlikely, the U.S., EU, and U.N. will begin preparations to lift sanctions once Iran is found to be in compliance. The deal includes a so-called snapback provision, which allows sanctions to be easily reimposed if Iran is believed to be in violation of its commitments under the agreement. Under this provision, any of the six powers that negotiated the deal can submit a complaint to a dispute resolution panel. If those concerns aren’t resolved, sanctions will automatically go back into effect in 30 days without another vote from the Security Council. This unusual feature is designed so that Iran’s allies on the Security Council—Russia and China—can’t use their veto to keep sanctions from being reimposed.
This is a pretty big concession for Russia, for which the Security Council veto is an important confirmation of superpower status. There had been speculation in the weeks leading up to the final deal that Russian reluctance to give up the veto might derail the whole thing.
China, which is already Iran’s largest trading partner and has ambitions to build a major overland trade system through Central Asia, has clear economic interests in seeing sanctions on Iran lifted. But for Russia it’s not so simple. The Russian economy has already been devastated by the combined effects of its own economic sanctions and low global oil and gas prices. The lifting of sanctions on Iran will likely cause those prices to drop even further as Iranian energy exports return to the global market.
Iran is also a customer for Russia’s second-most-famous export—weapons. Putin agreed in April to lift a self-imposed ban on selling air defense systems to Iran, prompting protests from the U.S. and Israel. A lessening of tensions between the West and Iran, and a lower likelihood of airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear program, could mean that Iran has less interest in buying systems to prevent such an attack.
Still, as Newsweek’s Owen Matthews suggests, Putin’s support for the separatist rebels in Ukraine shows he’s willing to put what he perceives as his country’s geopolitical best interests over narrow economic concerns, and the Iran deal could be another example of this. Russia sees its Iranian ally’s growing regional clout as a challenge to U.S. and Saudi dominance of the Middle East—particularly in Syria, where Moscow and Tehran are the leading remaining backers of internationally isolated President Bashar al-Assad.
It’s seems very possible that Putin shares the view of the deal expressed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gulf states, and hawks in Congress—that it will further Iran’s regional influence at the expense of the United States and its allies. He just sees that as a good thing