US-Iran tensions present opportunity for Putin to fill leadership vacuum on world stage, prevent arch-rivals from going to war

Aninda Dey

Iran has threatened to nuke the nuclear deal €" the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) €" it signed with the P5+1 and the European Union (EU) in Vienna on 14 July, 2015. Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi told reporters at the Arak Nuclear Plant on Monday that Iran has already quadrupled the production of low-enriched uranium and would exceed the 300 kg cap by 27 June. The JCPOA had capped Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium at 300 kg and heavy water at 130 tonnes and halted overseas sale of surplus supplies.

With Tehran not cracking despite the "Great Satan" striking a diabolical pose against it, Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom (part of the P5) should immediately break the chain reaction before it causes a nuclear fission that will have seismic effects on the global economy, especially oil supply and prices. Any action by the USS Abraham Lincoln and the B-52 bombers in the Strait of Hormuz, which lies between Iran and Oman and through which almost a third of all crude oil and other petroleum products pass, will have devastating consequences on Brent, which is at $65 after spiking to $110 in 2014.

Russian president Vladimir Putin could emerge as the key player in reducing the growing hostility between Washington and Tehran. With Donald Trump's intransigence causing a leadership vacuum on the global stage, Putin has been asserting himself as the best option. He could either act as a star negotiator €" considering his proximity to Trump €" to navigate the US-Iran relations to avoid a war, or, pressurise Washington into reducing its sabre rattling.

Russia has already warned against blaming Iran for the recent attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. "I would take the opportunity to warn against hasty conclusions and attempts to lay the blame at the door of those we don't like," Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to Russia's state-run RIA news agency.

"Lately, we have been seeing a strengthening campaign of political, psychological and military pressure on Iran. We wouldn't want the events that have just happened... to be used speculatively to further aggravate the situation in an anti-Iranian sense," he added.

At the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Putin praised Russia's strategic ties with Iran. After meeting Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, he said that "relations between Russia and Iran are multifaceted, multilateral".

This is the opportune moment for Russia to intervene and persuade both the US and Iran to tread with caution. Putin could facilitate a meeting between American secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, of course, if Trump puts his war dog John Bolton on a leash.

Russia could also persuade Germany and France to join her in persuading Trump, Bolton and Pompeo to not ratchet up the tension with Iran. Last month, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel told Putin over the phone about their commitment in preserving the nuclear deal and the significance of avoiding escalation.

Germany, France and the UK have already established the special purpose vehicle Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) to help Iran reduce the impact of the re-imposition of sanctions. However, INSTEX, which aims to continue Iran's transactions with EU companies, will take time to start benefiting the country. Besides, the 28-member EU has not endorsed INSTEX so far.

Russia, which did not oppose the US attack on Iraq, and France, have veto power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) along with the UK and China. Tough problems need tough solutions: it's high time for the other veto-wielding powers to counter the US at the UNSC to avoid an America-Iran confrontation.

Despite the threats on Monday, Kamalvandi left room for negotiations saying that if the other signatories of the JCPOA €" Germany, France and the UK €" help in avoiding the US sanctions, Iran won't enrich uranium. He, however, said that European powers have wasted a lot of time and Iran can't provide another 60-day deadline after the one given in May.

"There is still time for the Europeans. But the Europeans have expressed indirectly their inability to act. They should not think that after 60 days, they will have another 60-day opportunity," he said.

If efforts to persuade the US in not opting for a military solution to the crisis don't fructify, Russia can flex its muscles as well. "Russia may provide Iran with operational intelligence prior to or during the break-out of the war with the US," Pyotr Kortunov and Abdolrasool Divsallar wrote in an opinion piece in The Moscow Times on 28 May.

"The fall of the Islamic Republic could undermine Moscow's capacity for balancing in West Asia. It has the potential to cripple Russia's policy in Syria by giving more freedom of action to US-allied groups, further weakening the recovering Assad government. Particularly, a direct confrontation between Tehran and Washington that could bring back major US military build-up is a geopolitical challenge that threatens Russia's interests in West Asia," they further write.

According to Kortunov and Divsallar, "It will not come as a surprise if Russia decides to make a step beyond mere diplomatic support to protect her interests in West Asia, including militarily assisting Iran. Furthermore, the global ambition Russia is acting on today demands that Moscow makes an appropriate response to any radical US policy towards Iran. One of Putin's key aspirations in regard to foreign policy is asserting Russia as a globally recognised superpower."

Trump would not want even an indirect confrontation with Russia over Iran after the Syrian imbroglio, in which the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurds were pitted against Moscow and Tehran. Considering the good relations between Trump and Putin, it is time for the Russian leader to emerge as a hero who could avert a direct confrontation between the arch-rivals.

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