Would Congress killing Iran deal play into Putin’s hands?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Russia on July 9, 2015.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Russia on July 9, 2015. Tass/ABACA

As Republicans in Congress discuss rejecting what they consider a bad deal between the world’s major powers and Iran on that country’s nuclear program, European foreign policy experts are speculating that the Russians are licking their lips, hoping for that outcome.

Their take is that if after more than a decade of negotiations the Iranian nonproliferation agreement collapses through the actions of the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to claim the moral high ground and return to business as usual with Iran.

And Russia won’t be alone, they say.

Iran is a tempting market, and Congress’ scuttling of the deal would also sink its five-year ban on the sales of conventional arms and its eight-year prohibition the sale of ballistic missiles. If the deal vanished in Congress, the analysts say, it could provide an excuse to dismiss the United States as unreasonable and unreliable.

“If Congress does block the implementation of the deal . . . our allies and partners will no longer support restrictions on Iran,” Larry Hanauer, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp. office in Washington, wrote in an email response to questions.

“European nations will express more vigorous opposition to U.S. extraterritorial sanctions and defend companies doing business there,” he suggested. “Countries like India and China will purchase more Iranian oil than they do now; and arms exporters like Russia will seek to export military technologies to Iran.”

In short, Iran could get everything it negotiated for, and more, with a U.S. rejection of the deal. There’s already a European Union-Iran conference on trade and investment scheduled for next week.

A congressional rejection of the Iran deal . . . would destabilize the situation so severely that actors like Russia could easily take advantage.

Stephen Long, University of Richmond

The website for that function, to be held Thursday and Friday in Vienna, says, “The broad understanding reached between Iran and the world powers promises a new horizon of cooperation between this giant West Asian/Middle Eastern country on the one side and the world on the other side.”

Even under broad sanctions, in 2014 Iran was the world’s 29th largest merchandise exporter, according to estimates by the World Trade Organization. Its economic situation is expected to improve dramatically after the Vienna deal.

Mohammad-Reza Djalili, an international politics expert at the Graduate Institute Geneva in Switzerland, said that for centuries Iran’s preferred trade relations have been with Europe.

“We think Iran will mostly do their business with Europe,” he said.

But in the Middle East and certainly in Israel, nothing is more worrying than the notion of Russian arms sales to Iran.

And it is clear that Russia is chomping at the bit to get moving. At the height of the negotiations in Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov praised Iran’s role in combating the Islamic State, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.

It was not an idle compliment. Lavrov, who had left the negotiations to attend an emerging economic summit in Russia and to see Putin meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, was using that reasoning to justify arms sales to Iran.

“We are calling for lifting the (arms) embargo as soon as possible and we will support the choices that Iran’s negotiators make,” Lavrov said. “Iran is a consistent supporter of the struggle against ISIS, and lifting the arms embargo would help Iran to advance its efficiency in fighting terrorism.”

Indeed, even before the Vienna deal was struck, back when the P5+1 nations had only a blueprint to a final deal after meetings in Lausanne, Switzerland, Lavrov had happily announced Russia’s plans to go ahead with delivery on an S-300 surface-to-air missile system, purchased by Iran in 2010. The two countries also have discussed an upgrade from the 2010 version to a newer model. The system is sold as capable of destroying incoming cruise missiles and aircraft, and its possible acquisition by Iran is a large concern for many in the Middle East.

At the time, Lavrov explained to TASS, the Russian news agency, that the decision not to ship “was done in the interests of support for consolidated efforts of the six international negotiators to stimulate a maximally constructive process of talks on settlement of the situation around Iran’s nuclear program.”

Iran is a consistent supporter of the struggle against ISIS and lifting the arms embargo would help Iran to advance its efficiency in fighting terrorism.

Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister

The tentative accord reached at Lausanne, the Russians believed, signaled an eventual end to the ban on selling weapons to Iran. Russia signed on to maintaining the ban in the agreement reached this week, but analysts don’t believe it will wait if the U.S. tosses the agreement aside.

Ko Colijn, a security expert at the Dutch Clingendael Institute, said in an email that Lavrov’s earlier words are actually a very clear sign of Russia’s intentions. Russia is “in fact offering Iran an alternative to the potential U.S.-Iran ‘coalition,’ should the deal crash in Congress.”

Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, agreed.

“A congressional rejection of the Iran deal . . . would destabilize the situation so severely that actors like Russia could easily take advantage,” he said in an email.

“The result of a failed deal is not a return to the prior status quo,” he wrote, “but rather something different and far worse. The total failure of the U.S.-led negotiations would create a new opportunity for Russia to exert influence, as it did in crafting the Syrian chemical weapons deal when the president failed to follow through on his ‘red line’ rhetoric.”

The bottom line, Long notes, is that Russia never has considered Iran to be the threat the United States and some European nations are convinced it is.

Bobo Lo, a Russia expert at the London-based Chatham House research center, said Putin has been pushing the idea of Russia as a counterweight to U.S. global superiority for years. The collapse of a deal agreed to by China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, in addition to the United States, because of internal U.S. politics fits Putin’s narrative.

Beyond that, Lo said, the Russian economy needs the boost it could get from selling arms to Iran.

Energy prices are down, and what Russia makes that many in the rest of the world want is high-end, and low-end, weapons. Iran, especially with the money it would make from increased oil sales, is potentially a very good arms customer.

“Russia has some good, concrete, geopolitical reasons to want these arms sales,” Lo said. “It fits their vision. It also makes commercial sense. It also annoys the Americans. That’s a bonus.”

McClatchy special correspondent John Zarocostas contributed from Geneva.

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews