As the final deadlines for the nuclear negotiations with Iran approach, more consideration should be turned to the aftermath of the possible failure of the talks to produce a workable agreement. An important consideration for American officials for the day after the failure of the negotiations is how Russia will adjust its policy to the post-Geneva world, which will probably see a return to confrontation between Iran and the United States.
Russia will probably not accept some form of ultimatum where Iran must meet certain benchmarks or new sanctions will be imposed. Moscow will be more likely to accept a step-by-step approach, involving Iran implementing increased transparency measures, agreeing to certain levels of enrichment, or restrictions on the Arak reactor in exchange for sanctions relief. Further Russian actions to coerce Iran are unlikely. However, even with this flexibility, an agreement is unlikely at this point.
In the event that the negotiations fail, it is doubtful that Russia will consent to future sanctions against Iran. For Russia, applying sanctions against Iran while being the subject of sanctions of the US and EU would be quite a Kafka-ian policy. It is more likely that Russia will increase unilateral cooperation with Iran. A recent example of this shift in direction came in late February, with the news that Russia has offered to sell Iran its advanced Antey-2500v anti-aircraft missiles, which could be used by Iran to defend against Israeli or American attack on its nuclear sites. While this would harm Russia-US relations, it is hard to imagine how the relationship could get worse at this point. As long as the crisis in Ukraine remains ongoing and Russia remains pressured by the US and EU in this area, its cooperation will not be forthcoming.
There is virtually no possibility under President Obama of the United States launching a military strike to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. At the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that a comprehensive agreement will be reached under the current circumstances. With this in mind, it is critical that American policymakers begin considering their plans for the day after the talks fail, and consider what role Russia will play in America’s Iran strategy going forward.