The geopolitical developments in Ukraine are leading Russia and Iran to form a strategic partnership based on a mutual desire to resist and counter the Western international system.


Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meet in Shanghai, China, May 21, 2014. Photo: AP.

The current geopolitical struggles between Russia and the West – and the reemerging power divisions they imply – are playing largely in Iran’s favor. The Ukraine standoff is directly linked with the country’s nuclear negotiations and the foreign policy decisions that will follow as a result. All of this could lead to a redefined power alignment between Russia and Iran.

The Ukrainian crisis could have negative repercussions on the incentives that the Western community is trying to offer Iran for giving up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. In 1994, the “Budapest Memorandum” was signed with the former Soviet republics that were in some way involved with nuclear weapons. Under this arrangement, in return for the de-nuclearization of Ukraine, Russia and the Western signatories agreed to ordain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Sandra Peets

The recent developments in Crimea set a dangerous precedent, where a country that has complied with a Western diplomatic deal and given up its nuclear deterrent has experienced outside meddling. The signal Tehran is getting is that the Western security guarantees are not reliable. Consequently, Iran’s leaders could hesitate to make concessions at the negotiating table. The outcome of the Ukrainian crisis could become a menace to the whole nuclear nonproliferation system, and give justification to the Iranian domestic forces advocating for a nuclear deterrent.

Furthermore, this relationship between Russia and the West has a direct impact on the outcomes of the Iranian nuclear negotiations. First of all, the Iranian leadership could feel that its position at the negotiations table is considerably stronger then it was before the Ukraine standoff. Although the Western diplomats have affirmed that the P5+1 stands united, the situation in Ukraine could cause splits in this concerted approach. Iran felt the pain from the economic sanctions mainly because these were multilateral and backed by the UN Security Council.

However, since the cohesion between Russia and the West is threatened, Iran believes that Russia will not back further UN sanctions in case the negotiations fall apart. In fact, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who represents Russia at the negotiations, has stated that Russia might use the leverage they have in the Iranian nuclear negotiations to respond to the diplomatic pressure coming from the U.S. and the EU.

Preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons is not a favor to the U.S., but rather, a Russian security concern. However, Russia's sense of urgency is different from the other players at the negotiating table, because Moscow has better relations with the Iranian leadership, and the two states find common ground when it comes to international relations. Both Putin and Khamenei are resisting the Western-dominated international system, and are trying to resettle their influence in the Middle East.

In addition, both countries are on a quest to reestablish their regional and international status and prominence. Although these goals could eventually create a competition for influence between Russia and Iran, they currently find ways to converge their interests. The Ukrainian standoff will certainly enhance the showdown between the U.S. and Russia, and will, thus, motivate Moscow to reinforce its relations with Tehran.

The Obama administration is trying to manage the Ukrainian crisis while balancing between preserving the relationships with the Saudi monarchy and Israel. At the same time, it is advancing the international dialogue with Iran to achieve a major diplomatic victory. This diplomatic juggling could end up giving an upper hand to Iran, whose diplomatic position is bolstered by the geopolitical developments.

Moreover, the less assertive approach of foreign politics is perceived as weakness by the allies of the U.S., but could also give confidence to Iran, that Obama's “red lines” are not reliable. While Iran is gaining diplomatic weight on the international arena, al-Assad regime's position in Syria is reinforced considerably. Saudi Arabia, which is already loudly expressing its anxiety towards the recent diplomatic outcome between Iran and the West, is concerned about the implications these developments would have on the conflict in Syria.

While the international community is preoccupied with the diplomatic challenge in Ukraine and the attempt at the nuclear negotiations table, they are concentrating less on the steps Iran is taking in the regional crises. At the same time, Obama cannot afford to lose the vital relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, to appease the Saudis, Obama might be willing to give Riyadh the freedom to increase support for the Syrian opposition. As a result, the conflict in Syria and the proxy war between the regional heavyweights will be intensified.

The Ukrainian standoff is reinforcing the relationship between Iran and Russia and strengthening Iran's position at the negotiation table. The geopolitical developments in Ukraine are leading the two nations to form a strategic partnership based on a mutual desire to resist and counter the Western international system. Although there is no close alliance between Iran and Russia, the current political struggles have strengthened the pragmatic alignment between the two. This reemerging partnership has repercussions on the crisis in Syria and the nuclear negotiations. Consequently, Iran is inevitably regaining its relevance and importance in global affairs.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.