Publishe Date: 7:32 AM - 5/14/2014 | Print

Iran at Crossroads: Active Neutrality or Taking Sides with one of Belligerent Parties in Ukraine

Politics - Hassan Beheshtipour

Considering the possibility of a civil war in Ukraine, especially in the eastern part of the country, and also taking into account the beginning of a new era of Cold War in relations between Russia and the West, it is evident that Iran has two totally different courses of action to take in this regard.

A) Taking sides with Russia

According to this assumption, some political analysts believe that since Iran is in dire need of Russia’s assistance during the negotiations between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program, therefore, it would be better for Iran to get closer to Russia’s stance on Ukraine. By doing this, they argue, Iran will help to further strengthen relations and cooperation that exists between Tehran and Moscow in Syria. On the other hand, the way would be paved for Iran to reach an agreement in its nuclear talks with the P5+1 group of world powers through the assistance of Russia. At the same time, it is quite possible that rivalries between Russia and the West under the current circumstances would force both sides to show more lenience in their positions on Iran's nuclear energy program in order to attract Iran's support. In addition, if Iran lends its full support to Russia’s position on Ukraine, this may open a new chapter in cooperation between Tehran and Moscow in the Caspian Sea region and facilitate the formulation of a legal regime for the Caspian Sea. This is especially important in the light of the fact that the forthcoming summit meeting of the Caspian Sea littoral states is scheduled to be held in the Russian port city of Astrakhan in October.

The same analysts also believe that as a result of its current confrontation with the West, Russia may be encouraged to establish a new power block consisting of Iran, Russia, China, and India. Such a development may also cause Russia to appear more willing to reach an agreement on the situation of the Caspian Sea on the basis of the principle of fairness.

When assessing this viewpoint, it should be noted that due to a number of reasons, which have been enumerated below, this is a very optimistic viewpoint and chances for its occurrence in reality are less than 5 percent:

1. When it comes to Iran's nuclear energy program, Russia’s position on Iran's nuclear activities has been – and still is – independent of the West’s stance on this issue. Of course, during the past decade, Russia has accompanied the West in its effort to prevent further strengthening of Iran's nuclear capability. Therefore, Moscow has voted positive for all seven resolutions that have been adopted by world bodies against Iran's nuclear energy program. During that period, Russia did its best to firstly play the role of a moderating force in the face of the West’s unjust treatment of the Iranian nation. Secondly, it regularly opposed any form of military intervention in Iran and, instead, put the entire emphasis on the need to achieve a diplomatic solution for the standoff between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program. For this reason, although Russia did nothing to prevent Iran's nuclear case from being referred to the United Nations Security Council and be dealt with according to Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, it did its utmost to prevent Iran's case from falling under Article 42 and later articles of the UN Charter, which would have provided the United States and Israel with an excuse to launch a military strike against Iran. Therefore, since Russia considers further strengthening of Iran's nuclear capability as a threat against its interests, it cannot be expected to take steps to bolster Iran's stance on the its right to use peaceful nuclear technology just because it is currently facing a challenge with regard to the West.

2. As for the situation of the Caspian Sea, Russia has already reached an agreement with the neighboring Kazakhstan for the division of maritime borders. Russia has also reached a general agreement in principle over division of the northern part of the Caspian seabed with Kazakhstan and over division of its southern seabed with Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Therefore, the possibility of any new change in Russia’s position in this regard is very low.

3. The past experience has clearly proven that even if the differences between Russia and the United States do not lead to slowdown in the process of nuclear talks with Iran, the possibility that the two countries would show more resilience in order to attract Iran's attention will be very low.

B) Taking sides with the West

There is another group of analysts of Iran issues, which believes that the current critical conditions in Russia’s relations with the United States and the European Union can be considered a historical opportunity for Iran. Basing their argument on the interim nuclear deal [reached between Iran and the six world powers in Geneva last November], they believe that by condemning the annexation of Crimea to Russia, Iran can prevent this model of the abuse of political power from being applied by its northern neighbor as a fixed legal procedure. In doing this, Iran can send positive signals to the Western countries letting them know that if Western sanctions against Iran's oil and gas sectors were lifted the Islamic Republic would be able to meet Europe’s need to energy in case oil and gas sanctions are imposed by European countries against Russia. This would be exactly similar to what Russia did during all the years that the Western countries imposed sanctions on Iran's oil sector. In fact, Russians would not be able to complain about Iran's behavior because as the saying goes, “what goes around comes around.”

From the viewpoint of these analysts, such a big deal with the West will, on the one hand, enable Iran to attract investment and transfer the technology which the Islamic Republic badly needs in order to get its economy out of the current critical conditions. On the other hand, Iran's access to export markets in the Western countries will be provided once again and this would help the West to, at least, partially overcome its current state of economic recession.

There are also a few notes of caution on this viewpoint as explained below:

1. The most important obstacle preventing Iran's oil and gas exports to European countries is the imposition of inhuman sanctions against the Islamic Republic by the member states of the European Union (EU) in contradiction to international rules that the EU is committed to and in line with the policy dictated to those countries by the United States.

2. Even assuming that European countries are really willing to lift sanctions against Iran, due to excessive consumption of natural gas inside the country, Iran would firstly have no surplus gas which would be enough to meet the gas demand by European countries. The situation will remain the same until all phases of South Pars gas field in Assaluyeh region (in south Iran) are made operational. Secondly, Iran needs pipelines in order to get its exported gas to Europe. Construction of a proposed pipeline, which would go through Turkey before reaching Europe, would need implementation of time-consuming supplementary projects.

3. When it comes to exporting Iran's oil to Europe, it should be noted that some refineries in Europe have been adapted to work with the Russian oil. As a result, it will take time before they are adapted to the Iranian crude oil. Therefore, Iran will not be able to strike a balance in the European oil market over the short term.

4. The United States is under heavy influence of Israel. Therefore, it is very unlikely that Washington would allow a reconciliation between Iran and the European Union. Most certainly, as long as the final fate of the interim Geneva agreement has not been determined and a comprehensive agreement is not reached over Iran's nuclear energy program, the United States will continue to obstruct any agreement between Iran and the member states of the European Union.

5. On the other hand, following such viewpoints would be at odds with the strategic policy of Iran, which is trying to maintain well-defined relations with all political players in the international arena in order to achieve maximum realization of its interests. This means that by adopting such a policy, Iran may not only fail to reach an understanding with the West, but also lose the trust that has been built between the Islamic Republic and Russia during the past two years.

C) Adopting a policy of active and positive neutrality

By adopting such a policy, Iran would be able to maximize the degree to which it meets its interests without having to pay a high price for that. While monitoring the ongoing developments in Ukraine and possible sanctions against Russia, Iran is trying to take an accurate and transparent position based on its own national interests, which would be also proportionate to political developments in the Eastern European country, without having to take sides with Russia or the West.

According to this model, Iran should be prepared to take the best advantage of opportunities provided to it in European oil and gas markets. In this way, any time that the need arises, the country would be able to act in line with its own interests. This strategic policy will become successful when Iran does not choose to defend Russia’s position on Ukraine or get involved in the dangerous game that the United States and the European Union are currently playing in that country.

In doing so, Iran can emphasize on its policy of positive neutrality while proving that the policy of sanctions has been already shown to be inefficient and unacceptable just in the same way that annexing another country’s territory to one’s own without due attention to the viewpoints of its citizens is erroneous and could not be maintained for long.

*A researcher, documentary producer, and expert on nuclear issues, Hassan Beheshtipour received his BA in Trade Economics from Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

Key Words: Iran, Active Neutrality, Belligerent Parties, Ukraine, Russia, Caspian Sea Littoral States, West, European Union, Beheshtipour

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