President Trump’s refusal to re-certify that the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the United States, Russia, and other world powers still serves U.S. security interests leaves Russian policymakers with a confounding set of new questions. Their American counterparts also face a maze of guesswork about how Russia will react.
During the negotiations, Russia often tried to play the honest broker between the United States and its European allies, on the one hand, and Iran. Since Britain, France, Germany, and China remain extremely supportive of the nuclear deal and critical of Trump’s decertification decision, Russia would lose more than it gains by taking an equidistant position between the United States and Iran now. So that course looks unattractive.
On some past occasions, Russia freely complained that the IAEA is under the thumb of one other power, the United States (regarding Syria, for instance). That card has now been picked up by another player, the United States itself. Russia may be confined to a guarded loyalty to the IAEA. Meanwhile, Washington has to decide the U.S. position on the reliability of IAEA monitoring, not only in Iran but in general. Does de-certifying the Iran deal mean that the United States is now rejecting, or still accepting IAEA conclusions as valid?
Iran may go to the joint committee of signatories that oversees implementation of the deal—especially if the United States resumes nuclear-related sanctions, or imposes similarly tough sanctions for other reasons—and argue the United States is in violation. At that point, Russia would have to decide whether to agree with Iran or seek a less exposed position. Further, the Americans would have to work out a position in response to Iran’s charge—or decide whether to participate in the meeting at all.
U.S. opponents of the JCPOA have said they will campaign to persuade the five other countries that helped hammer out the nuclear deal with Iran to come around to their view. If so, they must decide where to start. Which country do they think is most open to persuasion—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, or China? In turn, Russian policymakers will have to decide whether or not to present themselves as persuadable—slightly, somewhat, etc.—and guess whether the United States might be transactional about this and offer Russia something.
Last, there’s North Korea. It will argue that asking it to negotiate an agreement on its nuclear program—especially in exchange for sanctions relief—is absurd, since the United States breaks such agreements. Russia will then be in the position of having to agree, but definitely not too much, lest it plays into the hands of those who assert that war, not diplomacy, is the only way to address concerns about proliferation.