This Week in Info War

Moscow Leverages Iran Disagreement

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Russia reacted to President Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – better known as the Iran nuclear deal – by expressing concern about regional stability in the Middle East and indicating its opposition to revising the agreement. The Kremlin stated that it will seek to work with the other signatories to uphold the JCPOA despite the U.S. withdrawal and quickly moved to court America’s disgruntled European allies. 

The Kremlin made little attempt to hide its irritation at, as well as its disagreement with, Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech on 21 May, which outlined U.S. policy toward Iran.

  • Mikhail Ulyanov, the Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations (Vienna), citing Pompeo’s demand that Iran give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full access to all facilities on Iranian soil, “which IAEA already had,” stated that American foreign policy towards Iran is “build on incompetence.” Ulyanov added that the United States is “not able to understand that, although Iran has some obligations under the [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons], Iran is a sovereign country and is entitled to some rights” – among them the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy.
  • Russian Foreign Ministry official Dmitry Feoktistov stated that it is “fruitless for the United States to name Iran as the main global threat because much of the international community disagrees with this notion.” Feoktistov pointed out that “organizations like Hezbollah are designated as terrorist groups by the United States while other countries, including Russia, recognize them as political parties and not terrorist groups.” He added that Russia respects other countries’ concerns about terrorist organizations but “there needsto be priorities.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that “the question is how Tehran assesses [Pompeo’s] twelve demands since the JCPOA still stands along with its signatories, except for the United States.”  
President Trump’s withdrawal decision has put France, Germany, and other European states in a tough spot. On one hand, they can resign themselves to watching their signature diplomatic achievement crumble. On the other, they can attempt to salvage the deal even if it means exposing their businesses to U.S. sanctions. So far, European leaders appear to have opted for the latter, committing themselves to maintaining the agreement, even if it means doing so without  Washington. For the first time in recent years, therefore, Russia and the European Union have found themselves on the same side and at odds with the U.S. on a key issue of European security.

Moscow has tried to take advantage of the discord. In a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 18 May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the Iran nuclear deal was better than none at all. Nearly one year after hosting Vladimir Putin at Versailles, French President Emmanuel Macron went to St. Petersburg to address the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 25 May. He held direct talks the day before with Putin, during which the two discussed the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, and, perhaps most pressingly, how to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. (Putin and Macron agreed to “build trust with Iran” in order to “expand” the JCPOA by adding a clause regarding Iranian ballistic missiles). In their joint press conference, Macron also emphasized France and Russia’s mutual interests, as well as their historic and cultural ties.

Visits such as those of Macron and Merkel would have been awkward just two months ago. At that time, tensions between Moscow and Europe had reached Cold War-era heights after the Skripal poisoning in the UK, an incident which resulted in the expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats from capitals across Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the attendance of other prominent world leaders at the Forum – including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde – was at the highest level in five years.

Europe and Russia now find themselves on the same side of the Iran issue; but this is no rapprochement. They backed opposing sides in the ongoing war in Syria, and Europe (along with the U.S.) continues to impose heavy sanctions on Moscow over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Differences over Syria and Ukraine are likely to continue, even as Europe and Russia continue to cooperate when it comes to Iran. But the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is only one aspect of the troubled state of the transatlantic alliance. The Trump administration has taken several actions that anger the Europeans, especially withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change. These disagreements provide grist for anti-Americanism and the appeasement mill in Europe, which has enough adherents even in the best of times and provides openings the Kremlin can exploit. A maximum degree of unity among allies is one of the best antidotes to countering Putin’s revanchist, threatening, and destabilizing moves.

Photo credit: Kremlin.ru