At first sight, Russia and Iran seem to have compatible – or even similar – approaches to the JCPOA and regional security. Moscow’s emphasis on the need for all parties to return to the nuclear deal in its original form and avoid raising new demands at this stage is in line with Tehran’s view that the JCPOA is “concluded and sealed” and cannot be renegotiated. However, the more Russian officials elaborate on their views on regional security, the less attractive they appear to become to the Iranian side, Valdai Club experts Hanna Notte and Hamidreza Azizi write. The article was prepared following the results of the Tenth Middle East Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For a commentary representing the Russian point of view, please follow the link.
Amid the enduring US-Iranian back-and-forth to determine the choreography of a return to the Iran nuclear deal (“JCPOA”), Russia is positioning itself as indispensable interlocutor and creative intermediary. On the nuclear issue more narrowly, the Russian Foreign Ministry recently put forward an informal roadmap of “concurrent steps” to be undertaken by Tehran and Washington in order to return to implementation of the JCPOA. Yet, these novel suggestions merely add nuance to an old Russian argument: that it is vital both sides initially return to the nuclear deal as is, before attempting to negotiate additional elements – be it longer sunset provisions, stricter verifications, or the missile and regional proxy issues, which are currently outside the scope of the agreement.
On the non-nuclear elements of a future deal with Iran, which loosely fall under the rubric of “regional security”, Russia’s diplomats have recently upped the ante. On his visits to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, Foreign Minister Lavrov was not shy in promoting Russia’s “Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf”. That concept has been floated repeatedly by Russian diplomats and even presented at the UN Security Council last fall in the presence of a disinterested, outgoing Trump administration. More recently, in the context of the Valdai Club hosting its 10th Middle East conference in Moscow, the concept received greater specificity, with Russian diplomats revisiting an approach championed thirty years ago: the multilateral track following the Madrid Peace Conference, which was modelled on the Helsinki process leading to the establishment of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).
Following the Madrid Conference of October 1991, a multilateral track had been established in January 1992, at a Moscow conference convening thirty-six delegations. The parties agreed to establish five multilateral working groups on Middle East issues: arms control and regional security, water, the environment, refugees and economic development. The working groups were meant to accompany and bolster bilateral peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and Arab states. Crucially, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria remained outside the process, which floundered from the mid-1990s for various reasons.
Amid anticipation of the recent Valdai conference, a former Russian Ambassador advocated a return to the post-Madrid working group model in order to practically implement the Russian Collective Security Concept. Foreign Minister Lavrov himself then dedicated the bulk of his Valdai remarks to the prospects of a Middle Eastern “Helsinki process”. He contended that such a process should be inclusive and comprehensive in both substance and format: (1) on substance, focusing on problems beyond the Persian Gulf zone, addressing security dimensions in an “integrated” fashion – their military-political, economic and humanitarian aspects – and including the missile problem in the region, and (2) on format, eventually involving not only all regional states (unlike the post-Madrid multilateral track), but also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council from the very beginning.
At first sight, Russia and Iran seem to have compatible – or even similar – approaches to the JCPOA and regional security. Moscow’s emphasis on the need for all parties to return to the nuclear deal in its original form and avoid raising new demands at this stage is in line with Tehran’s view that the JCPOA is “concluded and sealed” and cannot be renegotiated. Similarly, on regional security, Iran welcomed Russia’s Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf, viewing it as in line with its own diplomatic initiatives, especially Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE). Beyond such Iranian public nodding to Russia’s position on nuclear and regional issues, however, there is more than meets the eye.
Indeed, the more Russian officials elaborate on their views on these topics, the less attractive they appear to become to the Iranian side. The details of Russia’s plan for a comprehensive security process in the Middle East, as floated by Lavrov at the Valdai conference, seem unacceptable to the Islamic Republic regarding both format and substance. To begin with, the prospect of establishing a process involving all regional actors is severely hampered by the implacable enmity between Iran and Israel. The notion that the Islamic Republic, which as a matter of principle refuses to recognize Israel, would enter into a joint diplomatic framework with the latter is rather unpalatable. And in the unlikely event that Tehran was to agree to such an effort, it would surely demand that Israel’s nuclear weapons, considered by Iran as the main threat to regional security, be also put on the table. Given that Israel officially denies possession of such weapons, Moscow stands little chance of reconciling the two sides’ positions.
Further, Iran’s leaders consider their missile program an essential part of the country’s defence strategy, aimed at ensuring deterrence against rivals. From the Iranian perspective, while decades of international arms embargos have prevented Tehran from upgrading its military capabilities, especially in the area of air defence, other states in the region have significantly developed their armed forces with the help of Western countries. Under these circumstances, Iran’s homegrown missile program is viewed as essential to help Tehran maintain deterrence. Thus, it would be unacceptable for the Iranians to negotiate on missiles without addressing their rivals’ extensive military capabilities. Finally, Russia’s idea of including the permanent members of the UN Security Council in the proposed regional security process runs counter to the Islamic Republic’s view that security in the region can be achieved only through direct dialogue among neighbours and without interference by external actors.
Russian diplomats are likely fully aware of these Iranian reservations and the limited prospects for establishing an inclusive regional process from the get-go. This then begs the question as to why they advance such concepts in the first place. Perhaps, the recent public brainstorming should not be viewed so much as a serious diplomatic initiative, but rather as a reflection of Russia’s routine practice of “throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks”, in order to stay relevant on each and every file in the region. Indeed, Minister Lavrov himself acknowledged the existence of rival Chinese and French proposals for regional security by citing an old Chinese proverb – “let a hundred flowers bloom.” And his musings on reviving the post-Madrid working group model not just for a comprehensive regional security process involving Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, but also to advance Russia’s efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, further reinforce the impression that Russian diplomacy has no fixed and fully formed templates at this time. It appears that, beyond the vague notions of inclusiveness of participation and comprehensiveness of substance, there is no concrete Russian vision for an overarching regional security process. This stands in curious contrast to Russia’s approach to individual conflict situations, where its practice of forging flexible alliances – such as the “Astana Troika” on Syria – has been more targeted and successful in achieving results. Pleas for inclusivity and “all issues being on the table” alone will unlikely get the Iranians and others into a meaningful discussion on regional security; that will require serious sticks and carrots, the right sequencing, and bold leadership from across the region and international capitals.