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Russia, Iran: Anticipating Moscow's Next Move Amid Heightened U.S. Pressure

3 MINS READMay 16, 2019 | 20:15 GMT
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, give a joint press conference following their talks in Moscow on May 8, 2019.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif give a joint press conference following on May 8, 2019. Earlier that day, Tehran announced that it was suspending some of its nuclear commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

(ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has been in diplomatic overdrive over the past two weeks following Iran's announcement that it was suspending some of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Shortly after Tehran's JCPOA announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, during which Lavrov criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Then following a May 14 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Russian city of Sochi, Lavrov expressed Russia's desire to keep the uptick in U.S.-Iranian tensions from escalating to a military conflict, but warned that such an outcome remained a possibility due to hard-line U.S. policies toward Iran. 

The Big Picture

As tensions intensify over Iran's nuclear development, Russia could become an increasingly important player in helping stave off U.S. pressure on Tehran. Moscow will seize the opportunity to gain leverage in its own standoff with Washington by increasing support to Iran — though the extent to which it will be able to do so will be limited by Russia's own complex relations with the Middle Eastern country. 

What It Could Mean

Lavrov's recent statements, combined with Russia's varying strategic intentions with Iran and the United States, portend that Moscow will try to use Washington's heightened concern with Tehran to push for concessions from the United States in other areas, such as sanctions, Ukraine and arms control. In doing so, Moscow could strategically increase its support for Iran in the coming weeks in an effort to gain more leverage for use against Washington in negotiations. Such actions to watch for include: 

  • Increased nuclear support (e.g., developing reactors or shipping JCPOA-banned uranium to Iran).
  • Increased economic support (e.g., setting up oil smuggling networks or other actions aimed at circumventing current U.S. sanctions).
  • Increased diplomatic support (e.g., voting against U.N. initiatives backed by the United States).
  • Increased security support (e.g., sending Russian personnel, missiles and other weaponry to sensitive nuclear and military sites to complicate U.S. military strategies).

What to Keep in Mind

Russia's own intentions with Iran will limit the type of support it will provide. Russia appreciates having a key anti-U.S. ally in Iran, and wants to ensure it stays that way. Thus, it remains opposed to U.S. efforts to support regime change in Iran through sanctions and leaving the JCPOA. But at the same time, Moscow wants to ensure Tehran doesn't gain enough military power that it could more directly challenge Russia down the line. And for this reason, it also does not want to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons. 

Russia could try to use heightened concerns with Iran to push for concessions from the United States on other ongoing issues, such as sanctions, Ukraine and arms control.

This complex push-and-pull relationship can perhaps best be evidenced by Russia's periodic support in building the nuclear reactor in the Iranian city of Bushehr. The power plant doesn't lend itself (at least not directly) to the production of weapons-grade materials, but some of its supply chains do lend themselves to parts of Iran's weapons program. Though the plant remains unfinished, the civilian intent of Bushehr's design nonetheless emphasizes Russian willingness to continue to assist Iran in more peaceful endeavors while still supporting its nuclear power efforts.

For its part, Iran welcomes Russian support when it comes to maintaining the JCPOA — namely, the sanctions relief the deal is intended to provide. But due to Russia's history of involvement in the country, Tehran also remains wary of getting too close Moscow for fear of being subjected once again to its overwhelming influence. 

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