Can the Crimean Standoff Derail Progress with Iran?

By Abraham Shanedling
Russian President Valdimir Putin meets with
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in January 2014.
(Photo courtesy of The Iran Project)

A sanctions tit-for-tat battle is quickly emerging between Moscow and the Western powers in light of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

So far the United States and the European Union have implemented asset freezes and visa restrictions against 28 Russian and Ukrainian officials, including several close advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused of involvement in the seizure of Crimea.

Moments after President Obama announced expanded sanctions on Russian financial services, energy, mining and engineering sectors, Putin hit back with his own round of sanctions, targeting certain White House officials and Members of Congress.

Most of the named U.S. officials, now blocked from entering Russia, have not expressed severe concern. “I guess that means my spring break in Siberia is off, my Gazprom stock is lost, and my secret bank account in Moscow is frozen,” said Senator John McCain, who had recently returned from a trip to Kiev and was included on Putin’s list.

Members of Congress may not be taking the Kremlin’s response seriously right now. But this all may change.

Last week, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax News Agency that recent U.S. and EU sanctions may force Russia to alter its position on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. "We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington,” said Ryabkov, who leads Russia’s delegation to the negotiations.  “But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well. The historic importance of what happened in the last weeks and days regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

Ryabkov didn’t elaborate on how the Russian position may change, but his veiled threat is worth considering.

Since striking an interim deal last November, talks between Iran and Western powers have continued, with the most recent sit-down taking place in Vienna last week. Although the major differences have yet to be resolved between Tehran and the P5+1 powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the U.S., plus Germany), the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton said the discussions have remained “substantive and useful.” And, Iran’s delegation to the negotiations made no public mention of the Ukrainian situation.

Since 2006, Russia has been a crucial vote for orchestrating multinational sanctions against Iran through the United Nations Security Council. Generally, Russia and the West share an interest in reaching a diplomatic solution to avoid military hostility, especially given Russia’s proximity to the Middle East. However if Russia were to shift its stance on the nuclear talks, it could drive a wedge between the P5+1 that Tehran could exploit in the current round of negotiations set to conclude July 20, 2014.

Even more worrisome would be if Russia eased its compliance with many of the financial and oil sanctions in place. If, for example, Putin were to allow business deals with Iran, or follow through with a potential oil-for-goods barter, it could undercut the overall pressure exerted on Iran by the sanctions regime.

Although White House officials have downplayed the Russian threat to scuttle Iran negotiations, if Moscow were to follow through, it would be a disaster for the Obama Administration, which has staked much of its foreign policy legacy in reaching a final nuclear accord. That alone may be enticing enough for Putin’s government, which just last year capitalized on an off-hand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry to propose Syria turning over its chemical weapons program.

On the other hand, sabotaging talks with Iran would run contrary to Russia’s long-term interests. If Russia lets up sanctions pressure on Iran, it could reduce the chances of a diplomatic solution being reached, thereby increasing the likelihood of a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (by Israel, the U.S. or its allies), and perhaps sparking the type of regional hostilities that Russia seeks to avoid in the first place.

Putin is no fan of Obama, but he is not blind. Given the years it has taken the West to build up to this stage of negotiating with Iran, it would make little sense for him to be the one that sends it all crumbling down. That said, with the odds of reaching a satisfactory, final deal with Iran quite slim (or at most, 50-50), Putin may be wisest just to let it play out on its own.