Russia Warns It May Undercut Iran Talks Over Sanctions

Russia has implied that it may act as a spoiler in the Iran nuclear talks in retaliation for Washington-imposed sanctions over events in Ukraine. Correspondent Peter Kenyon joins Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. and Russia are also supposed to be cooperating on Iran. Russia's played an important role in attempting to negotiate restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. But Russia's deputy foreign minister recently suggested that Moscow might change i's position on those talks because of the disagreement over Crimea and Ukraine. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: So is it really in Russia's interest to try and use these Iran talks as leverage in the Ukraine dispute? Or is that not the point?

KENYON: Well, U.S. officials will tell you logically it's not in Russia's interest. A White House spokesperson says despite the recent rhetoric from Mr. Ryabkov, Washington has seen no change in Russia's position on Iran, and Russia has been a constructive player in the so-called 5 Plus 1 Group - that's the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - because Moscow doesn't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon any more than Washington does.

Now, other officials say Russia should have no trouble keeping the Iran issues separate from Ukraine, but as Russian officials have noted in terms of priorities, what's going on in Ukraine and Crimea right now is much more important than anything happening at the Iran talks. So if sanctions continue to escalate or other measures are imposed by the West, Moscow may well look for leverage where it can find it, and one place could be these Iran talks.

SIMON: And what could they do if they decided to do that?

KENYON: Well, analysts are pretty divided on this right now. Some say Russia can't really drive what critics might call a softer deal with Iran; that is, allowing Tehran to keep more of its nuclear program than Washington or Europe might like. There's certainly enough pressure already from hard-liners to jettison this deal as it is, and that pressure would soar if it appeared Moscow was pushing a more pro-Iranian agreement.

On the other hand, Russia could find other ways to help Tehran. There's a long-delayed sale of relatively advanced surface-to-air missiles. They're called S300s. Moscow could revive that. That would certainly rattle the neighbors; the Saudis, the Israelis and others. There's talk of a barter program allowing Iran to sell more oil. And then if the talks go badly, there's pressure for more international sanctions; Russia could always use its veto on the U.N. Security Council.

SIMON: Iran is eager for some kind of deal so that it can get rid of economic sanctions, isn't it? And I wonder what they feel about this - being used as leverage.

KENYON: Well, exactly. That's an interesting angle to this because except for their own hard-liners, Iran's leadership seems genuinely to want some kind of a deal, maybe even need it. The president - Hassan Rouhani's mandate is to fix the staggering economy. That means getting energy and especially banking sanctions lifted, and those are not Russian sanctions. So logically, Iran doesn't have much interest in helping Russia destabilize the talks, even if it means more short-term income.

Now unless - and this is a troubling unless, for some - unless Tehran decides that a nuclear deal isn't going to happen. At that point, everybody's calculations are revised; rising tensions; and the prospect of a military strike against Iranian facilities again becomes an issue.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thanks very much for being with us.

KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

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