Can Russia Help Biden Get a Comprehensive Agreement with Iran?

January 19, 2021
Hanna Notte and Hamidreza Azizi

The following was originally published at The National Interest.

As Joe Biden embarks on his first weeks in office as U.S. president, an intensive debate is raging in Washington and global capitals on how to construct a Middle Eastern regional security process alongside the resumption of JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, related diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran. That debate is sustained by the frequently made assertion that it would be a mistake for Biden to return to the Iran nuclear deal, without correcting what some call its “original sins”—the deal’s failure to address Iran’s regional policies and missiles, alongside its “sunset provisions.” Experts and officials have called for a “nuclear agreement plus,” a “broader follow-on negotiation,” or a three-phased approach, to name but a few offers on today’s marketplace of Iran-related proposals. Pursuing such a broader effort will be a tall order for U.S. officials regardless of the precise format and sequencing; involving Iran’s formidable partner, Russia, in any diplomatic choreography, therefore, seems essential.

However, assuming that the Iran file could be a “low-hanging fruit” for cooperation in an otherwise strained U.S.-Russian relationship ignores Moscow’s ambivalent attitude toward Iran’s proxy activities and missile program—components of Tehran’s so-called “offensive defense” strategy. For the most part, Russia does not view Iran’s cultivation of proxy actors in Arab societies—from Lebanon via Iraq to Yemen—as a threat to its own interests. And where its views are more nuanced, as in Syria, Russia’s record of being able to rein in the Iranians is mixed at best.

For starters, Russia has consistently argued that Iranian activities in the region are unrelated to the nuclear file as a matter of principle. It has backed Tehran’s argument—especially amid the arms embargo dispute last fall—that raising issues originally considered “extraneous to the JCPOA by mutual agreement” is impermissible. That position has reflected a deeper concern in Moscow with the integrity of the P5+1 process, which affords the Russian government respect and status, but also its broader apprehensions with an alleged “rules-based international order,” in which the United States invents “rules” as it sees fit while flouting established international agreements like the JCPOA.

Continue reading at The National Interest.

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