Whenever Russians think about Iran, soul-searching ensues. Some look at the Iranian system favorably, and some despise it, but in the aftermath of the recent deal to limit Iranian nuclear production in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions and increased commercial contacts with the outside world, many Russians, worried by their country’s growing status as an international pariah, have begun to ask themselves: “Are we the new Iran?”
This may sound strange to foreign ears, but it is not really so far-fetched. Many Russians, both inside and outside the Kremlin, admire the Iranian way of dealing with a hostile world. They respect the country’s determination to develop its own nuclear power, regardless of widespread global opposition. And Tehran’s toughness in the face of crippling economic sanctions struck a chord with President Vladimir Putin and his supporters, who have succeeded in presenting Western sanctions over Moscow’s misdeeds in Crimea and Ukraine as a sinister attack upon their sacred motherland.
Many Russians feel much as Iranians felt when their country was hit with sanctions years ago: defiant and eager to prove that no sanctions can affect them. Mr. Putin and his acolytes never tire of declaring that Russia will stand up to the West and prosper on its own.
And yet Russia played an important role in negotiating the American-led agreement with Iran. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was a key voice among representatives of the six-nation coalition, never letting the U.S.-Russia conflict over the Ukrainian crisis and other issues get in the way of talks with Iranian officials.
Perhaps President Obama was taking this into consideration when he acknowledged Moscow’s contribution to the Iranian accord. Referring to Washington’s tensions with Moscow, Obama said in an interview after the agreement was reached in Vienna that “Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me.” He added: “We would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us.”
But now that Iran is opening up, Russia simply won’t be competitive enough with the West to deliver the kinds of consumer goods and technology that a post-sanctions country would want. In reality, the nuclear deal will increase Russia’s political isolation and hurt its economy — already reeling from the steep drop in oil prices, a plunging ruble and the effects of Western sanctions. Investors, wary of the Kremlin’s cavalier approach to contracts, prefer to seek opportunities elsewhere. And many of the country’s most talented people, troubled by its dictatorial approach to government, are seeking their future abroad.
Meanwhile, high-profile delegations from Germany, France, Italy and other European countries that include dozens of corporate representatives have begun visiting Iran. “Even in the past couple of weeks we have approved more than $2 billion in projects in Iran by European companies,” Reuters quoted the country’s deputy economy minister, Mohammad Khazaei, as saying last month.
Iranian officials are hoping for renewed access to consumer goods and are planning a massive revamp of the country’s antiquated infrastructure. Hard-liners may want the bomb, but the leaders who have prevailed want their citizens to have new clothes and gadgets, automobiles and airplanes. Tehran already has announced that it plans to buy as many as 90 aircraft a year from Boeing and Airbus as soon as the sanctions are lifted. If Obama’s gamble to reopen the country pays off, Iranian and Western interests can merge.
Russia can certainly compete with the West in the energy sector as well as the arms trade (although the United Nations embargo on weapons sales to Iran won’t be fully lifted for five years). But it still faces a difficult paradox. While the Iranian business climate waxes, the Russian climate will wane. The lifting of sanctions in one nation will further complicate economic conditions in the other. Some international companies, including the same car and equipment manufacturers that are now interested in Iran, are leaving Russia, and even more may follow. Western investors worried by what might await them in Russia are lining up to compete for more lucrative deals in Iran.
Mr. Putin supported the Iranian accord because he realized that disrupting negotiations that both Iran and the West wanted to succeed would have only deepened Russian isolation. Perhaps he also has realized that he’s been alone on the world stage all too often. Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, its military games of chicken with NATO, and his own often-comic chest-thumping, are setting him up to take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s place in the world.
Mr. Putin probably realized that he had to support the Iran deal in order to stay in the game. That is why he recently pushed a plan for a “united front” to fight Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Though this is unlikely to materialize, given that the front would include forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, it’s real purpose was to present our president as an important and engaged global leader.
Far more important to we Russians, however, is how and on what terms our country stays in the game. Today it seems as though we are proudly and foolishly marching into the position hastily being vacated by Iran.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia.