If a nuclear deal is reached after ongoing negotiations between the West and Iran, there might be a “new opening” in Iran — but it’s unclear whether the US or Russia will benefit more.
That depends on whether the West truly engages with Iran beyond the deal to fundamentally change its relationship with Tehran, Paul N. Schwartz, a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says in a new paper.
“The trick for the West will be to exploit the new opening with Iran to move beyond the nuclear dialogue and to engage Iran in ways that provide it with incentives to integrate more closely with the West,” he writes.
“By exploiting this opening to increase trade with Iran and by encouraging large-scale Western investment in its economy, the West would give Iran a much greater stake in maintaining good relations.”
The result would be “positive incentives for Iran to moderate its behavior in the Middle East.”
Otherwise, Russia will take full advantage.
“While several issues remain open, what’s increasingly clear is that, unless the accord ultimately leads to a fundamental transformation in Iran’s relationship with the West, Russia is likely to emerge as a key beneficiary of the process,” Schwartz writes.
And notably, Schwartz doesn’t believe that more trade and investment alone will be enough for the West to “turn Iran’s behavior around.”
“More will be required to truly transform the relationship between Iran and the West, because all of the current geopolitical incentives in the Middle East tend toward continuing conflict with Iran,” he writes.
“Iran’s objectives in the region conflict directly with both Western interests and those of key Western allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. Resolving these conflicts will require committed dialog, restraint on all sides, and real compromises, all of which will be exceedingly difficult to achieve.”
And if the West chooses to not engage with Iran, Russia stands to really benefit in political and economic influence in the Middle East. Some analysts suggest that Russia would gain more from this partnership than Iran would, which means Russia’s incentive to jump on this opportunity is even greater.
Moscow and Tehran would mutually benefit from some increased trade: We’ve already seen some Iran-Russia deals such as more nuclear bases, the possibility that the S-300 will finally be delivered, and the oil-for-goods deal. But Moscow is also hoping that once the sanctions are lifted, it can resume arms transfers — Iran needs the modern weapons.
Mehdi Sanayee, Iran’s current ambassador to Russia, recently noted that the two states plan to pump up bilateral trade from the current $5 billion to $70 billion a year in the near future, according to Schwartz.
“Even if this target appears exceedingly ambitious, it is indicative of where the two parties would like to take their trading relationship going forward,” he writes.
Furthermore, Moscow appears to be afraid of the West integrating with Iran as it believes that better Washington-Tehran relations will invariably weaken its position on the global stage.
As Russian Middle East expert Georgy Mirsky told The Washington Post:
A few years back, I heard one of our diplomats say: ‘A pro-American Iran is more dangerous for us than a nuclear Iran.’ … If you look at this as a zero-sum game, Iran getting closer to the West is a weakening of the Russian position.
And for this it is necessary to bring a preventative blow, before the implementation of this nuclear agreement, to show Iran that we are the most reliable partner and the only great power you can rely on.
It’s notable, however, that Schwartz doesn’t write that the West should pursue relations with Iran to hurt Russia. Rather, he argues that it’s to “turn Iran’s behavior around.”
In any case, it’ll be interesting to watch the next moves by Washington and Tehran — as well as Moscow — after any nuclear deal.
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