It may be said that the Ukraine crisis is a blessing in disguise for Tehran in the middle of the ongoing “P5+1” nuclear negotiations. I would submit that this may not necessarily be the case. Europeans might arguably take the rapprochement with Iran more seriously in the wake of this crisis. Sitting on the world’s second largest natural gas reserves, Iran could transport gas to Europe via Turkey, a country with which Iran has had predictable and stable relations. Having adopted a noncommittal position toward the Ukraine crisis, however, Iran finds itself in a paradoxically awkward yet advantageous situation.
Iran has always juggled conflicting interests, as evidenced by its history and geography. Not this time, some argue. Iran will opt, they note, for an independent regional position, willing to expand relations with both the West and the East, a position strikingly similar to that of present-day Turkey. European countries that have long sought a reliable and viable alternative to Russian energy, especially its natural gas, will most likely give the Iranian option serious consideration. Iran and Qatar, despite chronic friction, share the South Pars/North Dome field, together managing enormous gas reserves that offer an attractive alternative to the EU member states. For Qatar, this option is equally attractive because, as experts observe, the country has since 2007 earned more from gas exports than from oil exports and is currently the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
Surely, Iran’s oil trade deal with Russia, in which Iran sells oil to Russia in exchange for goods, including basic food necessities, will ratchet down the pressure over Iran’s suffocated oil market hit hard by crippling Western-imposed sanctions. Will this be the beginning of some rifts within the “P5+1” unity over the sanctions on Iran? There is a better than even chance that if the West-Russia standoff over the Ukraine crisis escalates, Moscow’s behavior within the context of multilateral negotiations with Iran will be unaccommodating, presenting new complications to the final, comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. If this scenario unfolds, Iranian negotiators might be tempted to exploit such a division.
Along this line, I would also argue that there are limits to such exploitation. Consider, for example, the notion that China could be drawn closer to Russia’s position. This is a somewhat exaggerated—if not entirely unrealistic—scenario given that China’s interests often diverge from those of Russia’s on such matters as oil flows, global trading system, and regional strategic interests. The possibility of Russia, Iran, and China forming a power pole in the region exists, but it is unlikely. This is not to suggest that China is less likely to seize this moment to gravitate toward Russia’s position on certain converging strategic and geopolitical interests as a counterweight to the United States.
Iran has officially taken a neutral stance toward the Ukraine crisis, even as some Iranian media have blamed NATO expansion and the EU for provoking the current crisis by meddling into Ukraine’s internal affairs. Some experts share the view that the outcome of this crisis—especially if the West-Russia conflict further deepens—could mean a strengthening of ties between Iran and Russia, as both countries share several strategic interests. But the fact remains that maintaining balanced relations with both Washington and Moscow will be in Iran’s long-term interests given the fluid and evolving politics of competition and cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
This, however, requires a triangulation of political strategy in which Iran preserves an independent position, because aligning itself too closely with either Washington or Moscow runs the risk of alienating both by appearing too imprudent. The best course of action for Iran is to avoid entanglements in this traditional, cyclical, and renewed power game. Iran’s strategic loneliness and defensive posture requires that it maintains a dynamic equilibrium of sorts in its relations with both rival camps. Reaching a nuclear deal within the “P5+1” framework and the subsequent recognition of Iran as a “peaceful nuclear power” by the international community is not only consistent with Iran’s strategic interests but also the most pragmatic course of action under such circumstances. Iran’s strategic interests are ill-served by the persistence of the nuclear dispute and diplomatic deadlock with the West. It has taken a long time to overcome the mutual distrust between Washington and Tehran, even longer to attenuate the ambiguity about each side’s intentions. The stakes are too high to be subject to poor decisions.
Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D. is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University and visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies/political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
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