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CWA # 138, 22 June 2019

Middle East
Iran, US and the Nuclear Deal: Will Russia remain neutral?

  Mahath Mangal

If the conflict escalates, Russia might not remain neutral as an increased US presence in the Middle East would undermine the influence and role as a balancer in the region. This does not mean Russia would engage the US directly in an offensive capacity

Recently, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made a statement asking the US not to cause ‘military provocation’ in the Middle East. He said that Moscow had called on both the US and Iran to show restraint. 

The tension in the Gulf has been ongoing and been escalated by the US increasing its military presence, recently sending an additional 1000 personnel to the already stationed 1500.
According to Moscow, the US is adding fuel to the fire it started by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA)last year. The cascading effects have taken the relations between the superpower and Iran-a regional power to where they are today. The stakes are high with the conflict looming and Russia being a close partner of Iran raises the question of whether Moscow would maintain neutrality in the event of further escalation.

Russia, Iran and the Middle East

Russia and Iran share a close relationship in the region. In response to NATO, the Russia-led Collective Security Organization invited Iran to be a member. To limit the influence of the US in the central Asian region, Russia saw Iran as an essential ally in all probability. Iran is much ahead of its neighbours in the region in weapon development and innovation. While they use primarily American-made weaponry, Iran’s arsenal became increasingly Russian made. The cooperation in this field extended both ways. While Moscow supplied weapons systems, Tehran instead of being a mere receiver, returned the favour by providing drone technology. Russia and Iran had signed a defence deal in 2010 where Moscow was to supply Tehran with its S-300, armoured vehicles, helicopters and ships which was called off following Iran coming under fire from the United Nations for refusing to halt its Uranium enrichment programme- leading to a sour relation between the countries for a while. It was not long before the two countries found common ground.

During the Syrian civil war, Iran and Russia took joint efforts in providing armed support to curb the rebellion in Syria’s North-West. This had resulted in Russia being put under sanctions from the west, citing war crimes on civilians under the pretence of supporting the Syrian government. 

The relations also extend in trade. The Eurasian Economic Union of which Russia is the prime member invited Iran to be a member though Iran shares its border with only one EEU member country-  Armenia. Today, Iran is a ’key partner’ of EEU in the Middle East, signing a Free Trade Agreement with the economic union. While in 2005, the trade between Russia and Iran was only $1 billion, it jumped to $3.7 billion in three years. The massive energy deal between the countries in 2015 was worth $20 billion. These increasing avenues of cooperation were an effect of a shared characteristic of being under the US imposed sanctions and international response to their ‘rogue activities’. 

Thus, Iran’s ties with Russia had room for improvement since Tehran came under sanctions from the US following its withdrawal from JCPOA. The sanctions were intended to pressurise Iran to negotiate a better deal as Trump was unsatisfied with the terms of the agreement. This has had the collateral effect of bringing Tehran closer to Moscow- Washington’s long-time rival.

Will Russia remain neutral?
Russia faces sanctions from the West following the Ukrainian crisis and the subsequent annexation of Crimea. This proved to be a common ground for closer Moscow-Tehran ties. Putin approved the sale of S-300 air defence systems and other weaponry in 2015. 

If the conflict escalates, Russia might not remain neutral as an increased US presence in the Middle East would undermine the influence and role as a balancer in the region. This does not mean Russia would engage the US directly in an offensive capacity. Moscow might at best help Iran fortify its defence systems by upgrading the existing s-300 systems with the latest S-400 Triumf. 
A direct conflict would not be in anybody’s best interest. The international community is caught between the stubborn US and a seemingly loose Iran, with economic interests at stake. The other member states of the JCPOA and even Japan are all trying to de-escalate the situation. Russia, cannot remain neutral if it has to maintain its trajectory to reclaim its superpower status in reality.

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