The conference is planned for Jan. 29-30, with more than 1,500 delegates representing the Syrian government and the opposition. The main stumbling block is the Syrian Kurd representation, which Moscow and Ankara are trying to solve along with the Syrian government. There are hopes that the Sochi conference will lay the foundation for the success of the Geneva negotiations to reach a political settlement in Syria.
“We are at a very sensitive stage in preparing for the Syrian national dialogue conference in implementation of our tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish initiative,” Lavrov said at the beginning of his meeting with Zarif in Moscow. He said Russia was confident the conference would be the basis for any success in resolving the Syrian conflict.
On Iran, Russia agrees with the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Tehran is complying with the treaty, and Lavrov said Moscow would defend the viability of the nuclear agreement. However, Zarif said Tehran wanted the international community to go further in defending the nuclear deal, and to oppose any US action against it. He complained that US President Donald Trump’s decisions were unpredictable.
Russian policy toward Iran has always been the result of a balance between contradictory factors that affect Moscow’s interests both positively and negatively. The first factor, as the Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, is that Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and has a responsibility as a permanent member of the Security Council. The second factor is to guard against the risks from the south, mainly from Iran and the former Soviet republics, that pose a threat to Russia’s national security. The third factor is the need to end Iran’s international isolation, and therefore the threat to Russia’s interests there. There is an irony in that the US and Russia have conflicting interests in the same country.
Moreover, Moscow’s relations with Tehran and Tel Aviv enable Russia to formulate peace initiatives in the Middle East, which would improve its international image. Russia believes this justifies its support for the nuclear deal, to defuse tension in the Middle East and to disarm countries that have their own nuclear capabilities. The alternative is a nuclear arms race, not only in the Middle East but around the world.
Russia’s support for Iran over the nuclear deal and the recent protests reflects a range of mutual strategic interests established over four decades.
After the recent demonstrations in Iran, which have been described as the “Iranian Spring,” it is instructive to compare and contrast the Russian and American positions. Moscow’s direct support for the Iranian government has led to stronger ties. Russia considered the demonstrations in Iran as an internal matter, in which no country had the right to interfere. This explains its stance in the UN Security Council against any decision that would denounce the Iranian government. Russia views what is going on in Iran as an internal event caused by conditions that are not the worst in the region, and called on the Iranian government to deal cautiously with the protests. Although this indicates Russia’s support for the regime in the face of an uprising, it does not reflect the reality of Russia-Iran strategic ties; they have been anchored in a range of political, economic, and military-security relations established over the past four decades, especially in recent years when the two allies have grown closer than ever.
In contrast, Iranian-American relations take the form of implicit consensus, with differences and conflicts at the same time. Perhaps the most prominent at the moment are the American statements that support the Iranian protests and condemn the practices of the Iranian regime.
There is a contradiction at the core of the American position on Iran. The US was the major sponsor of the nuclear agreement in 2015. Washington has also effectively handed Iraq over to the Iranians, and has been silent over recent events there. So why blame Russia?
The US administration is divided over whether to withdraw completely from the nuclear agreement, or to extend the suspension of sanctions on Iran. Senior advisers to Trump have urged him to take the latter course, and he has agreed to extend the suspension of sanctions “one last time.” Nevertheless, privately Trump is said to have expressed anger at having to do so, because he believes his predecessor, Barack Obama, negotiated a bad deal for the US.
Any eventual decision by the US to reimpose sanctions on Iran would put it in an awkward position with the international community, because it would mean a clear breach of the agreement and a violation of its terms, which would have negative repercussions on America’s relations with the other signatories.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub).