The P5 +1 negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program, after months of being at the forefront of every newscast, has moved into the background and has, for the most part, disappeared from view. The fallout from the crisis in Ukraine has absorbed almost all of the world news ink. This is not a bad outcome since difficult negotiations such as these are best conducted out of the spotlight of the 24 hour news cycle. While the negotiators have popped their heads up periodically, making bland statements that progress is being made, that the negotiations are difficult, etc., most of the attention of the mainstream media has been focused on the West’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has decided to look beyond the current situation and return to the Cold War policy of containment of Russia. (See here) One question that is worth considering is: what is the impact of the resurgence of the Cold War on the Iranian negotiations.
With lingering border disputes, with the Iranian tilt toward the West under the Shah, with Soviet support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, Russia-Iran relations have historically been difficult and, at times, hostile. As the world moves toward a return to the Cold War division into two or more mutually antagonistic camps, how will Iran decide to react? One possibility is that they will see an opportunity for a “Plan B” should nuclear negotiations breakdown. With hardliners in Iran and the U.S. working hard to torpedo the negotiations (See here and here.), an ultimate breakdown is certainly a very real possibility. With the resulting return of Western sanctions on Iran and with the breakdown in Russian-United States cooperation, Iran may choose to take a tougher negotiating stance and “pivot to the East”.
On the other hand, Iran may see this geopolitical complexion change as providing an opening door to the West. U.S. pressure to apply stringent sanctions on Russia over Ukraine has put EU countries that rely on Russia for over thirty per cent of their oil and gas in a difficult position. Suggestions by media pundits that the U.S. can make up the difference from its growing gas production from “fracking” are pure fantasy. Unlike oil, gas has no global market. With the exception of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), for which the U.S. has little capacity, gas requires pipelines and pipelines have a tendency to stay where you build them. The major gas producer best positioned to make up a gas shortfall in Europe is Iran. Iran has the latent production capacity and the existing ability to transport gas to Europe through the Trans-Anatolian pipeline. From this perspective, Iran and Russia are competitors and there is no particular reason why they should be allies from a geo-political standpoint. For now, Iran, feeling that it is in a no-lose position, thinking that time is on its side, appears to be trying to take a middle ground position, antagonize no one and avoid being trampled as Russia, EU, Ukraine and the U.S. stomp around like a herd of elephants. The U.S. may finally see that it is in its strategic interest to seek an accommodation with the Islamic Republic of Iran.