Russia’s position on Iran’s nuclear program has always lagged behind its confrontation with the West. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow actively supported diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. After the invasion, Russia initially disrupted these efforts, but soon reverted to a more neutral stance. Now, with Moscow becoming ever more dependent on Tehran for economic and battlefield support, Russia’s attitude will likely become increasingly unhelpful. This is bad news for U.S. efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal and bad news for the cause of global nonproliferation more broadly.
Throughout 2021, Russia actively encouraged the restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Towards that end, Russian diplomats mediated between its parties, averted a breakdown in Iran’s relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency on several occasions, and even publicly reprimanded Iran over breaches and delays in returning to the negotiating table. With the invasion of Ukraine, Russia ceased to push for meaningful and timely progress in the nuclear talks or to insulate them from broader geopolitical tensions. Amid heightened tensions with the West, Moscow’s growing ties with Tehran are reducing both the Kremlin’s ability and willingness to nudge Iran towards accepting a renewed nuclear deal or to publicly criticize Iran.
When Russia Was Helpful
The Biden administration entered office in January 2021 intent on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — some two and a half years after President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal. After six rounds of negotiations in Vienna between April and June 2021, the election of Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency in June 2021 caused a hiatus in the talks, which only ended two months prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Throughout this period, Iran took steps to reduce compliance with the nuclear accord, building on prior violations undertaken after May 2019. In February 2021, it also suspended implementation of the Additional Protocol, which granted the International Atomic Energy Agency expanded access to information and locations inside the country.
Against this backdrop, Russian officials — and in particular its permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and International Organizations in Vienna, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov — emerged as central advocates of a restored nuclear deal. Ulyanov played an active role in keeping the nuclear talks on track, including by frequently engaging the Iranian and U.S. negotiators bilaterally. On several occasions, Russian diplomacy was instrumental in averting a collapse of the Vienna talks — by some estimates “a half dozen times” in the second half of 2021 alone. For example, Ulyanov mediated a solution regulating access for agency inspectors to Iran’s Karaj centrifuge assembly facility in December 2021, which then allowed for the resumption of talks in Vienna later that month. Three months prior, Russia also facilitated a “last minute deal” in September on agency verification activities in Iran.
Russia also took great care to insulate the Iran nuclear talks from the broader deterioration in its relations with the West. Over the course of 2021, contacts between Moscow and Western capitals became increasingly tense. Still, U.S. officials continued to praise their interactions with Russian counterparts on the Iran nuclear deal as constructive. Ulyanov similarly applauded his dialogue with U.S. officials in the context of the nuclear talks, calling it “intensive,” “useful,” and “businesslike,” and characterizing Washington’s approach as indicative of a “unity of purpose” with Russia.
Moreover, Russia did not shy away from criticizing Iran. In February 2021, once the International Atomic Energy Agency had revealed Iran’s production of uranium metal, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov urged Tehran “to show restraint and a responsible approach.” Two months later, when the Iranian leadership announced that it had started to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity, Russian experts characterized the decision as “perhaps the most drastic step” taken by Tehran in the recent past. Amid tensions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding agency access to nuclear facilities in the country, Ulyanov also cautiously admonished Iran to ensure preservation of video material recorded by the agency’s cameras in order “to avoid problems in the future.” In an interview conducted in July 2021, the ambassador delivered perhaps his clearest punch at the Iranians, characterizing Tehran’s recent breaches with the nuclear accord as “going too far.” Such statements appeared indicative of a growing Russian concern over Tehran edging closer to nuclear threshold status.
Russian criticism of Tehran even adopted a mocking undertone on occasion, such as when Ulyanov criticized Iran for dragging its feet over resumption of the nuclear talks in the fall of 2021. Responding to a statement from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in late October that the talks would resume “soon,” Ulyanov tweeted: “‘Soon’. Does anybody know what it can mean in practical terms?” On a separate occasion, he cautioned that the talks “can’t last forever.” The combination of active Russian mediation, telegraphing of impatience, and occasional criticism addressed at Tehran even led some in Iran to accuse Moscow of playing an unconstructive role in the Vienna talks. The Russian embassy in Tehran felt compelled to issue a statement in support of Ulyanov, who characterized allegations of Russia “dominating” the Vienna talks as “flattering but nonsense.”
A New Calculus
The invasion of Ukraine changed Russia’s calculations on the desirability of seeing the nuclear deal restored — probably not all at once, but certainly as the ripple effects of the invasion became more apparent. On March 5, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated for the first time that Western sanctions imposed against Russia over the war in Ukraine had become a stumbling block for the nuclear deal, warning that Russian national interests would have to be taken into account. Lavrov proceeded to demand written guarantees from the United States that Russia’s trade, investment, and military-technical cooperation with Iran would not be hindered in any way by such sanctions.
The United States, which was quick to respond that “new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]” was not the only one to be dismayed. Iranian officials reportedly called Russia’s move “not constructive” for the Vienna talks. They remained careful, however, not to rebuke Moscow too openly, with the foreign minister simply stating that Iran will not allow any “external factor” to affect its “national interest in the Vienna talks.” Still, Iran’s envoy to the Vienna talks returned to Tehran for consultations. Russia then presented a non-paper on the matter to the European Union, setting out its demands for written guarantees. By March 15, however, when the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers appeared at a joint press conference in Moscow, any hints of disagreement or irritation had dissipated. Minister Lavrov walked back the earlier Russian demands by clarifying that his country already had “received written guarantees … in the text of the agreement itself on the resumption of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].”
Notwithstanding the softening in Russia’s position after 10 days of uncertainty, the episode “stole the momentum” in reaching a final agreement on modalities for restoring the nuclear deal, which had been within reach by early March. It also created a perception in Western capitals that Moscow was no longer committed to insulating the nuclear talks from its tensions with the West. Such a perception might well have been fueled by Russian officials implying openly that Russia would no longer provide its “good offices to the two sides” — meaning Iran and the United States — to finalize an agreement on the deal.
In this context of decreasing trust in Russia as an impartial mediator eager to see a timely restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, new intermediaries came to the fore. In the early summer of 2022, Doha hosted talks between Iran and the United States, mediated by the European Union. When those ended without tangible results, Brussels exerted efforts to mediate an agreement between Iran and the United States on a “final” text for restoring the deal. Russia, meanwhile, invested less diplomatic capital on the nuclear deal compared to the period before February 2022. Though there was no shortage of high-level Russian-Iranian engagement, and though Russia continued to participate actively in the Vienna negotiations, Russian statements after such meetings lacked the signs of impatience that Moscow had telegraphed in the fall of 2021. On Aug. 25, for instance, after Iran had requested additional time to submit its considerations on the “final” text, Ulyanov commented that “we must be patient.” And once Iran shared its response, insisting on the previously dropped demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into Iran’s past activities be closed, Russia’s reaction was again forgiving. A year earlier, Russian officials had subtly criticized Iran for dragging its feet over resuming negotiations. Now, they judged Iranian demands—considered by Washington as moving the talks “backwards” — to be “accommodable.”
Aside from showing infinite patience with Tehran, Russia more generally desisted from criticizing it. In June 2022, 30 International Atomic Energy Agency board members voted in favor of a resolution — which Russia rejected — that called on Iran to fully cooperate with U.N. inspectors’ investigation into three undeclared sites. Subsequently, Iran proceeded to disconnect several agency cameras installed at nuclear sites, prompting no protestations or even expressions of concern from Russia. Instead, Russian officials blamed the board resolution for undermining the “continuation of Iran’s normal engagement with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] on outstanding issues.”
Russia’s apparent tendency to allow Iran to stall in the Vienna talks—rather than proactively push for progress — can be explained at least partially by its enhanced reliance on the Islamic Republic. Shunned by Western capitals since February, Russia has considerably intensified its interactions with Iran, which culminated in President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran in July. The two countries have promised to expand their bilateral trade on several occasions, and Iran vowed to soon introduce the Russian Mir payment system to facilitate commercial transactions. Meeting his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in mid-September, Putin claimed that Russian-Iranian bilateral trade had increased by 30 percent over the first five months of 2022 alone. The two countries also announced progress on several energy projects in the Iranian upstream and downstream sector as well as swap deals and liquid natural gas production that had long been stalled. Admittedly, past plans to strengthen economic ties have often failed to live up to rhetoric, and recent increases in bilateral trade have been driven mostly by Russian exports of agricultural products. The structure of the Russian and Iranian economies, particularly their competition in hydrocarbons, fundamentally limit the prospects for growing interdependence. Still, with both countries facing strained circumstances, recent economic steps should not be dismissed.
On the military front, Moscow has recently resorted to Iranian drones to target Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, and the United States suspects it of trying to procure Iranian surface-to-surface missiles as well. Russia’s enhanced military-defense cooperation with Iran is a game changer in that it recalibrates a patron-client relationship in which Russia previously had all the leverage. Beyond Ukraine, Iran has long shown its value to Moscow by cooperating in support of the regime in Syria, respecting Russian red lines in Central Asia, helping reign in Sunni radical groups, and counterbalancing a resurgent Turkey.
Moscow has also pursued more intangible gains from its partnership with Iran. Lavrov indicated in June that Iran had shared with Russia lessons from its experience in “surviving sanctions.” While underscoring their growing economic interdependence, such rhetoric has also indicated a growing political convergence against the West. Having solidified its relations with the Islamic Republic over years, and watched the rise of Iran’s hardliners, Russia understands that — even if the nuclear deal were restored — the prospects of a general rapprochement between Tehran and Washington are negligible. Deal or no deal, Moscow will be able to count the Islamic Republic firmly on its side in the broader geopolitical confrontation with the West.
Russia’s enhanced dependence on Tehran is reducing its ability to nudge Iran towards accepting an agreement or publicly criticize Iran. Heightened tensions also reduce Moscow’s willingness to invest significant diplomatic capital to cooperate with Western partners in restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In addition, Moscow’s calculation that Western sanctions relief would further increase Iran’s already improved bargaining position vis-à-vis Moscow might be playing into Russian thinking as well. Russia’s apparent equivocation over the fate of the deal is not the only or decisive factor preventing its restoration — but it does not help. With Tehran’s crackdown on domestic protests and direct aid to Russia, the Biden administration stated in mid-October that restoring the nuclear deal was not its “focus right now.” Since Western states allege that Russia’s acquisition of Iranian drones violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 — which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the deal’s fate has now become inextricably linked to Iran’s new arms trade with Russia. Even after mid-term elections in November, these new irritants lower the chances that the nuclear accord can be revived.
There is also a risk that Russia’s attitude toward nonproliferation more broadly might be changing. Historically, Moscow always defended Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, and routinely sought to limit U.N. sanctions on Iran. But Russian leaders never wanted Iran to weaponize its nuclear program — let alone become a nuclear-weapon state. Today, it cannot be ruled out that Russia, set on a total collision course with the West, might view Iran’s nuclear hedge as a welcome irritant to distract the West. While the current Russian leadership would still prefer Iran not get the bomb, it might see Tehran’s nuclear hedge as more useful than worrisome at this time, particularly as Iran has moved down the Kremlin’s list of perceived threats in recent years.
The Kremlin prefers protracted uncertainty over the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to either a successful deal or its formal collapse. But should it prove impossible to continue diplomacy after the U.S. midterm elections, and should Western states declare the deal dead, Russia will likely try to protect Iran against any consequences. It will probably shield Tehran at the U.N. Security Council, attempt to complicate Western efforts to “snap back” U.N. sanctions, and provide Iran with more advanced air defense systems and other weapons. Such steps will undoubtedly put Moscow further at odds not only with Western capitals, but also Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. But from Moscow’s perspective, Russia cannot afford to leave Iran out in the cold as it continues its struggle with the West.
Hanna Notte, Ph.D. is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, where she focuses on arms control and security issues involving Russia, the Middle East, their intersection, and implications for U.S. and European policy. She holds a doctorate and M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford University and a B.A. in social and political sciences from Cambridge University. Her contributions have appeared in The Nonproliferation Review, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and Carnegie, among others. This article is based on a book chapter for an edited volume by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, forthcoming in spring 2023.
Image: Presidential Executive Office of Russia