Washington — The world powers holding a new round of nuclear talks with Iran starting next week are divided by another issue of geopolitical importance: the crisis in Ukraine.
Tensions between Russia and the West are mounting over the Russian military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, with the United States and European countries threatening to impose sanctions.
Foreign policy experts, however, say the Ukraine crisis is unlikely to fracture the international alliance in nuclear talks with Iran. The stakes in keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon are simply too high for Russia to use the issue as leverage against the West, they say.
“Russia has a rational policy, and I don’t think they would like to see a new Islamic nuclear empire rising to their south,” said Eldad Pardo, an Iran expert at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The next round of talks between Iran and the six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — begins March 17 in Vienna.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the key consideration in the talks is the threat of fundamentalist Islam that Russia perceived in its south and on its southern borders, said Michael Adler, an Iran scholar at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“Russia is worried about the expanding influence of fundamentalist Islam in the region, and Iran can be a vector for that,” he said. “The idea that that vector can become nuclear is totally unacceptable.”
Adler suggested that Russia may become more aggressive in seeking to work around the tough U.S. sanctions on Iran but was unlikely to abandon its commitment to UN Security Council sanctions.
“Russia is not happy with bilateral sanctions but has not backed off from multilateral sanctions,” he said. “Russia wants to make problems, but at every point when it comes to the UN sanctions, Russia has closed ranks.”
Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., said Russia might use Iran issues not directly related to the nuclear talks as leverage in the Ukraine crisis. For instance, he suggested, it might retreat from its commitment not to sell sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to the country, or it could facilitate trade along its Iran border. But he emphasized that Russia has an interest in preventing a nuclear Iran.
“Russians don’t want that kind of nuclear proliferation in their neighborhood,” Nader said. “This is a national security issue for them.”
The Ukraine crisis also has spurred questions about whether Russia will retaliate against the West using its influence in Syria.
The dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons capability, part of a Russian-brokered deal to head off a U.S. strike on Syria last year, reportedly has slowed, while talks between the Assad regime and its opponents are on the verge of collapse. Obama administration officials have acknowledged their frustration at what they see as the insufficient level of pressure that Russia is exerting on Syria’s government, although they have not blamed the Ukraine crisis.
“That’s an area where I believe Russia has a self-interest in trying to ensure that that happens, it’s not a favor to the United States,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said at a March 6 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, referring to the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Senators had pressed Burns on whether Russia was using Syria as leverage in the Ukraine situation.
“Ukraine is the 800-pound gorilla at the moment and we can’t ignore it, nor can we ignore that Russia is a common element in both countries,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s chairman, told Burns, referring to Syria and Ukraine.
The longer-term danger of the Ukraine crisis is that it could further erode the posture of the United States as the preeminent world power, said Pardo, and that could have repercussions in the Middle East.
“In the Middle East, the image is that Obama is not a trustworthy ally,” he said. “In Egypt with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, in Syria, in 2009, America did not support liberals in Iran. When you have such an image, you have a problem of a credit deficit in your reliability scale.”
Abraham Diskin, an emeritus political science professor at the Hebrew University, said Putin should be the weaker party in the conflict with Obama over Ukraine but is emerging triumphant.
“Putin is definitely a person who is by far weaker if you look at the resources of the Russian Federation and his military capabilities,” Diskin said. “He should be afraid to do what he is doing, but he is not because he is fighting paper tigers.”
Meanwhile, with nuclear talks set to resume, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to advocate for a tougher posture on Iran. Last week, after Israeli forces seized a boat laden with what Israel said are Iranian-origin missiles headed for the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu said the shipment proved again that Iran is not trustworthy.
“At a time when it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things, the same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations and is doing so via a ramified network of secret operations in order to send rockets, missiles and other deadly weapons that will be used to harm innocent citizens,” he said in a March 5 statement. “This is the true Iran and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons.”
Iran has denied being behind the weapons shipment.