A New Russian Strategic Calculus? Analyzing the Viability of JCPOA Negotiations

Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle

Underneath the central crisis of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is more subtly challenging global security. Most recently, Russian attempts to hijack negotiations around the United States’ re-entrance into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), threaten to spiral Middle Eastern security into greater crisis. Indeed, these negotiations have constantly been fraught with threats of derailment. For example, the election of hardline Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi paused diplomatic channels, and debates over IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear sites ushered in a stalemate.  Nonetheless, just as Iranian and European diplomats have pushed negotiations  beyond stalemate and towards resolution, Russia launched one last Hail Mary to sow chaos among its Western negotiating partners, demanding “a revised nuclear agreement with Iran shield it from sanctions imposed because of its war in Ukraine.” While recent developments indicate that negotiations are likely to resume, this hot security environment introduces new strategic interests for the involved parties. The contextual change underpinning negotiations, when compounded by outstanding issues, will complicate the achievement and implementation of a renegotiated JCPOA.

New Russian Strategic Interests

Russian obstinance in renegotiations reflects the strategic risks of enacting a new JCPOA in the midst of its war in Ukraine. First, arriving at a new deal introduces more competition for Russia in the global oil market. As Iran plans to export 1.4 million more barrels per day in the coming months, relief from western sanctions could slightly alleviate Russia’s ability to hold European markets hostage. While Russia, indeed, exports over 5 million barrels per day, introducing a new competitor will not completely free Europe from Russia’s energy dependency but nonetheless opens more serious avenues of European support for Ukraine. Recognizing its new strategic interests, Russia has clearly rethought its interest in JCPOA renegotiations.

Second, finalizing the negotiations simply frees up more political capital for the West to pressure Russia. The several rounds of negotiations have over-exerted Western diplomats, seeking to curb Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear program for military purposes. Securing a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit temporarily, would subsequently “ lift the weight of a major security crisis for the West and give it more space to put pressure on Russia,” according to Ali Vaez, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran Program. In the short term, added Western political capital could put more pressure on Russia in Ukraine, elucidating Russia’s last-ditch effort.

Furthermore, Russia’s new strategic considerations are set against the backdrop of increased cooperation with Iran. Since the formation of the JCPOA, Russia has extensively partnered with Iran and pro-Assad forces in Syria, ruthlessly defending the Assad regime against the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, Iran has taken a sympathetic stance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, breaking from its 2014 stance in which Iran failed to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The regime has “embraced Russia’s anti-Western narrative over Ukraine, portraying the intervention as a harbinger for the West’s decline.” This Russo-Iranian détente reflects the fraying of the P5+1 as a stable negotiating entity united under the single strategic interest of containing Iran.

Moreover, should Russia’s new strategic considerations outweigh its loyalties to the JCPOA, Russia holds power as a current member of the deal to permanently hijack the United States’ re-entrance. The improved relations between Russia and Iran and Russia’s ever-increasing hostility against the West could result in Russia preventing negotiations from going forward entirely. A member of the Joint Committee that enforces the deal by consensus, Russia could use its role to prevent the United States’ re-entrance to the deal. Russia’s warming relationship with Iran coupled with its procedural power in the JCPOA risks stalling talks at a time in which patience from all sides is quickly expiring.

A New Strategic Calculus?

Russia now must weigh the relatively short-term strategic threats presented by a finalized and enacted deal against the long-term strategic imperative of denying Iran a nuclear weapon. Russia undoubtedly has a non-proliferation interest in Iran. In 2009, revelations of a secret underground enrichment site in Iran outraged the Russians, who subsequently canceled the sale of air defense systems to the country. Just like the United States, the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East that many fear will result from Iran’s development of nuclear weapons undermines Russia’s regional interests.

Furthermore, the importance of this long-term strategic imperative kept Russia in the 2014 negotiations, during which Russia’s invasion of Crimea threatened to derail the deal. However, these renegotiations are inherently more tenuous and time-sensitive. When the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran accelerated its enrichment to 60 percent, which “marks the first time Iran has produced highly enriched uranium.” Not only are these renegotiations set against a more nefarious backdrop, but the heightened lack of trust between the United States and Iran from the U.S. withdrawal and the failure of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure”, makes any Russian attempt at derailment more effective.

Nonetheless, the deal must go on, and all parties must be involved. While calls for unilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran have entered the fray, the role Russia plays in the JCPOA practically must be acknowledged. Russia is largely responsible for collecting excess enriched uranium from Iran and monitoring the Bushehr nuclear site. Considering the site has been enriching at a quicker pace and sits on three tectonic plates, thus prone to geological disruption, securing the site not only remains a security imperative but an ecological one. Thus, all P5+1 members play a critical role in the deal. The United States must focus on resolving its outstanding disagreements with Iran, mainly comprising sequencing issues and sanctions relief, and not cede to Russia’s bluff.

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