Analysis |

Russia's Ukraine Invasion Pushes the U.S. and Iran Together

Russia's insinuation that it could tie the nuclear accords to a resolution in Ukraine only testifies to its fraying relationship with Iran, which is sensing new opportunities from a détente with the West

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, at far right, meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, far left, in Moscow in January.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, at far right, meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, far left, in Moscow in January.Credit: Sputnik/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s demand for written American guarantees that sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine would not affect commercial ties and cooperation between Russia and Iran got a cool reception in Tehran. Such demands are “not constructive,” an unnamed senior Iranian official was quoted as saying. “There is an understanding that by changing its position in [the] Vienna talks, Russia wants to secure its interests in other places.”

The Iranian reaction was not unconnected from Iran’s abstention in the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia, which was passed by a large majority of 141 countries. It also comes against the backdrop of growing opposition at home to Iran’s pro-Russian stance so far on the Ukrainian issue. Iranian politicians and commentators have called for the country to refrain from supporting Russia so as not to create the impression that Moscow dictates Iran’s foreign policy.

The understanding reached so far by the delegations to the nuclear negotiations is that the talks remain unrelated to any political or military interest that either side has beyond the nuclear issue. Iran will not discuss the issue of its ballistic missiles or its assistance to terrorist organizations, and the Western countries and Russia and China, which are parties to the negotiations, will not link the events in Ukraine to the nuclear accord.

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Russia’s representative at the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, also stressed last week that the two topics are unrelated. His declaration was unnecessary. A senior Iranian defense official told the Reuters news agency that even if Russia changes direction or tries to torpedo the accord, Iran would follow its own interests. He asked rhetorically why Iran should sacrifice millions of dollars on the altar of its alliance with Russia.

The idea that Iran and Russia are extremely close appears to require some recalibration — and not only as it relates to the nuclear accord. Tehran also has a score to settle with Moscow in the Syrian arena, from which it was displaced by Moscow with the Russians’ decision to allow Israel to attack Iranian targets in Syria.

A session of the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna last year.Credit: Lars Ternes/EU Delegation in Vienna/AFP

It is now expected that the nuclear accord will be signed this week after representatives of the negotiating countries return to Vienna following consultations and in the wake of “productive” talks held by the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, on Saturday in Tehran. In those discussions, there was apparent agreement on a way forward to solve some of the monitoring issues that have yet to be resolved, such as visits to locations that are not declared as nuclear sites but where there is evidence that enriched uranium has been in use.

Iran has demanded that the file on these sites be closed, but the United States and its partners have not yielded. It seems, however, that they have agreed not to let the issue delay the signing of the accord – on the condition that agreement on the matter be reached at a later date.

Another pending controversy relates to guarantees that Iran wants from the United States to ensure that Washington doesn’t withdraw from the accord in the future. After Iran recognized that President Joe Biden could not commit future U.S. administrations and that Congress would not accede to Iran’s request for a binding decision on this matter, the two sides are trying to find a compromise that would satisfy Iran.

It appears that it is not only the United States and the other Western countries that are pushing for a quick signing of a deal. Iran is relating to the Ukraine crisis as an economic opportunity to be quickly grasped. The price of oil and gas has skyrocketed to levels not seen in years and the immediate entry of Iran into the energy market could line the pockets of the Islamic Republic, whose deficit budget is still based on oil prices before they spiked and on sales of a million barrels a day.

According to estimates, Iran has a ready reserve of 80 million barrels of oil stored in tankers and in other Asian countries that it could immediately market. Senior officials in Iran’s oil industry believe that within a matter of days to a few weeks, Iran could be selling another 1.2 million barrels a day, thereby contributing to a lowering of oil prices around the world and permitting Iran to attract new European customers.

A gas flare on an Iranian oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields. Credit: /Raheb Homavandi/Reuters File Photo

Furthermore, the sanctions now imposed on Russia afford Iran an opportunity to offer new channels of investment to international corporations that are pulling their investments out of Russia and looking for alternative opportunities. This bonanza obviously depends on a quick signing of the accord, after which sanctions on Iran would be lifted. The confluence of interests between Iran and the United States is looking stronger than the one between Iran and Russia.

Nevertheless, Iran can continue to maintain its commercial ties and arms deals with Russia because sanctions on Russia are not binding on the Iranians as they have not been adopted by the UN Security Council. The choice is now Iran’s.

It’s worth noting that Iran’s most important strategic partner is China, with which it signed a 20-year strategic pact, in the course of which China will invest $400 billion in infrastructure and the development of oil and gas fields, in exchange for oil and gas that Iran is selling the Chinese at reduced prices. Iran will also allow China to build ports and bases on its territory.

And Russia has an important role in implementing the nuclear accord since it is the country slated to receive the surplus enriched uranium that Iran has produced since 2019, the year in which it began violating the accord, following America’s withdrawal from the agreement a year earlier.

Russia and China are also due to help Iran to develop a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes, within the limitations of the accord. If Russia decides not to sign the accord without the written American guarantees that it is demanding, Western countries could take over its role in receiving the surplus enriched uranium and China could continue developing Iran’s nuclear reactors.

Russia would not want to be excluded from the picture or to lose its Iranian leverage, even if it doesn’t get those American guarantees. If there’s a link between its invasion of Ukraine and the nuclear accord, it lies in the fact that Russia’s ability to dictate Iran’s moves is eroding, while the opportunities the West can offer Iran are only beginning to come into focus.

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