Cliff Kupchan is the Director for the Middle East at Eurasia Group, a leading geopolitical risk consulting firm, where his work focuses on Iran, Russia, and U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Kupchan works closely on Iranian nuclear, foreign, and domestic policies, as well as on developments in the broader Middle East and in Russia.
He has published numerous articles and essays on Iran, the Middle East and Eurasia. Mr. Kupchan frequently lectures on U.S. relations with Iran, and is a regular commentator for both major television stations and newspapers. Before joining Eurasia Group, he served as Vice President and Senior Fellow at The Center for the National Interest. During the Clinton Administration, Mr. Kupchan served as a senior official at the U.S. Department of State. Before that, he worked for many years for the House International Relations Committee (Representative Lee Hamilton). He served as Senior Foreign Policy Advisor for Eurasia, North Africa and foreign aid. Mr. Kupchan received an B.A from Brown University and an M.A. from Stanford University. He sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to discuss Russia’s strategic interests in Iran and the upcoming Iranian presidential elections.
How would you characterize Iran’s foreign policy conduct in the face of post-Arab Spring regional developments? Do you consider Iran to be Russia’s geopolitical ally?
In broad terms, Iran has pursued a pragmatic and usually cautious foreign policy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Iranian elites initially claimed other nations were following the path of the Iranian revolution, though it is impossible to know if they ever truly believed this ideological interpretation of events. Regardless, Iran quickly adopted a realpolitik and wary approach to developments that posed unexpected challenges. Regarding Egypt, Iran quickly pursued closer ties to the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. But Egypt kept its distance from Iran because of differences over Syria, reluctance to risk financial support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a desire to maintain cordial relations with the U.S., and lingering suspicions of Iran’s intentions in the region. In addition, the Egyptian government is reluctant to open itself to criticism from the powerful Salafist constituency, which is anti-Shia. Iran played a negligible role in the Libyan and Tunisian transitions – in neither case did Tehran have a foothold with the opposition. Iranian policy in Syria has been ruthlessly pragmatic, as explained below. Iraq stands out as the emerging success story for Iran; as the Syrian government has floundered, Tehran has sought to tighten relations with Iraq. Maliki, increasingly fearful of Sunni unrest, has in turn moved toward Iran.
I do not regard Iran as Russia’s geopolitical ally. The bilateral relationship is not as close as most observers believe, and has been marked by diminishing trust in recent years. Iran is displeased by the degree of Russian support for the P5+1 position in talks on the nuclear issue. Tehran was also unhappy with the slow pace of Russian work on Bushehr, and continues to be frustrated by Russia’s reluctance to sell some sophisticated weapons systems. Russian elites view Iran as an inscrutable country, and Russian businesspeople frequently complain about the difficulty of doing business with Iran. Occasionally, Russia and Iran coordinate policies to balance U.S. power, but the relationship is far short of an “alliance.”
What are your key expectations from this year’s presidential elections? Could a new Iranian administration impact regional dynamics?
I expect the elections to produce a calmer political scene in Iran. In my view, Khamenei’s top goal is to restore more political cohesion in the system, and drastically reduce infighting. I believe he will at least somewhat expand the “political tent,” which will dampen factional sparring. At this still early stage, it is likely that a traditional conservative (Qalibaf, Velayati, or a lesser-known figure) will win the presidency – that would entail a slight shift to the center. Neither the Ahmadinejad clique nor the hardline Steadfastness Front seem to have a viable candidate – so it’s unlikely that a security-oriented hardliner will be the next president. Rowhani is the wild-card; if he receives key endorsements and wins as a center-left candidate, the result could be a more centrist but politically fractured Iran.
The new Iranian president is unlikely to have a major effect on regional dynamics. The Supreme Leader makes key foreign policy decisions, not the president. But the tenor of Iranian foreign policy will likely change, modestly reducing regional tension. Iranian elites will drop the vitriolic anti-Israel, Holocaust-denial rhetoric – which offends many Iranians and people throughout the region. A less caustic image will also help Iran mellow frictions with GCC members. But the continuing nuclear standoff will keep the region tense, and sanctions will continue to stifle trade.
With the long history of Russian involvement in Syria and the three-decade old Syrian-Iranian alliance, what is your assessment of Russian-Iranian common interests in the Syrian conflict and their vision for Syria’s future?
I do not believe that Russia and Iran have significant common interests in Syria – beyond avoiding Assad’s speedy demise through use of Western military power. Russia is not wedded to Assad remaining in power, and is willing to support a peace process if the Syrian parties agree on that process. Russia’s primary concern is stopping “another” U.S.-led Western “unilateral” intervention, similar to Iraq, Kosovo, and Libya. Moscow also fears chaos in Syria, which it believes will produce a hotbed of Sunni radicalism. Iran, on the other hand, is much more tightly allied with the Assad regime. Tehran is intent on keeping Assad in power for as long as possible. Iran’s fallback position is apparently to take advantage of chaos in Syria to seek maximum Iranian influence. Iran would seek this goal by arming friendly militias, and possibly supporting an Alawite fiefdom in the Lakatia area. Russia and Iran, beyond a superficial level, have very different approaches to Syria.
How do you evaluate the role of Russia in the nuclear standoff with Iran?
Russia has been much more supportive of U.S./EU policy than is commonly appreciated. Russia supported U.N. resolution 1929 in June, 2010; this measure laid the groundwork for the ensuing sanctions regime. Moscow has consistently pressured Iran, especially in private meetings, to negotiate in good faith. The “Russia Plan” for negotiations was put forward in 2011. It entailed the sides making reciprocal and phased concessions to resolve the nuclear issue. That concept still carries the greatest chance of yielding a diplomatic breakthrough. Russia has also refused to sell Iran certain advanced weapons, such as the S-300 anti-aircraft system. Moscow does strongly oppose unilateral US sanctions and the possible use of force against Iran. But on balance, Russia has been quite constructive in the P5+1 talks.
Some Iran observers and analysts believe the current sanctions against Iran have not impacted how Tehran conducts its foreign and nuclear policies. What is your take on this? Do you concur with this view?
There is no evidence that sanctions have, to date, changed Iranian nuclear or foreign policy. However, several caveats to this conclusion are important. First, sanctions have slowed the Iranian nuclear program, especially by denying Iran important component materials. Second, sanctions have added to Iran’s economic troubles – which will only become worse as oil revenue remains at reduced levels, inflation continues to soar, and competition within the economy is stifled. At some point, Iran’s economic crunch will likely play a greater role in its calculation on the nuclear issue. But finally, sanctions are not a policy; the US-led P5+1 have been more effective at devising sanctions than inducements for Iran to reach an agreement. Sanctions are a tool to gain leverage, and that has been achieved. But a diplomatic offer from the P5+1 that more fully addresses some of Iran’s concerns has not been forthcoming.