Could This Be What Putin and the Mullahs Are Cooking Up?

On July 19, Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived in Iran on an official visit and held meetings with its president, Ebrahim Raisi, and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.  There are substantial grounds to believe that during those meetings, a plot was hatched to upend the West's "maximum pressure" strategy, which involves the levying of heavy economic sanctions on the two countries as well as on their ability to procure new armaments.

The plot, it now appears, is driven by two main elements.  First, the weaponization of Gazprom — the Russian state-owned multinational energy behemoth — as the primary tool employed to realize its goals.  Second, intensifying pressure on Western countries to conclude a new nuclear deal with Iran, which would also involve the lifting of sanctions on the exportation of Iranian oil and gas.

Apparently, the initial grounds for the plot were being laid already in May.  That month, Russian deputy prime minister Alexander Novak arrived for talks in Tehran.  The Russian news agency Interfax quoted him as saying, "We discussed the issue of supplying energy resources to the north of Iran so that logistically, Iran (since all its production facilities are located in the south) would not need to supply the north of the country.  In turn, it will be easier for us to use for sales their products that are formed in the south, which is closer to our markets."

Accordingly, Iran would import Russian crude off its northern Caspian coast and then sell an equivalent amount of crude in Iranian tankers originating from the Persian Gulf to Asia-Pacific markets.  Iran will refine the Russian oil to meet its domestic demand, and once a nuclear deal is reached, Iranian oil exported from the south will be exempt from sanctions.

Once this framework was put in place, implementation of the plot began in earnest.  Within a week of Putin's visit to Iran, on July 25, Gazprom announced that it would reduce "the daily throughput" of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany to 33 million cubic meters, alleging that it was shutting down for equipment repairs.  The net impact was to cut gas supplies to Europe to 20% of capacity.

German officials were clear-eyed in assessing the Russian move: "Putin is playing a perfidious game," German economy minister Robert Habeck told the European news agency dpa.  "He is trying to weaken the great support for Ukraine and drive a wedge into our society.  To do this, he stirs up uncertainty and drives up prices."

The Russian coup de grâce followed soon after.  On August 30, Gazprom announced the indefinite suspension of all gas deliveries to Europe, citing an oil leak it supposedly detected at the Nord Stream 1 Portovaya compressor station.

When Russia announced its intention to restrict supply in July, within a day, it had pushed up the wholesale price of gas in Europe by 10%.  Gas prices are now approximately 450% higher than they were this time last year.  Not surprisingly, the Euro zone inflation rate hit a new record high in August at 9.1%, with a 38.3% increase in energy prices constituting the largest component of this rise.  A slowdown in European economies looks inevitable, and an accelerated pace toward a continental recession may have begun and may take effect this winter.  The only question remaining may be how deep it will be and how long it will last.

Putin certainly is having his revenge.  Not only is he punishing the European Union (E.U.) for its support for Ukraine, but he may expect some of its members (Hungary in particular) to peel off and search for a separate energy deal with Moscow.  Undoubtedly, he aims to force the West to cease or at least curtail its indispensable military and financial aid to Ukraine after Russia's nuclear saber-rattling had failed in doing so.  As energy scarcity continues to grow, Putin may even hope for civil unrest to erupt in some countries, particularly in Germany, the continent's largest economy, whose reliance on Russian gas amounts to just over half (55%) of the gas consumed there — the heaviest among the European countries.

However, for now, this has been a win only for Putin.  For the plot to work and the grand scheme to succeed, the mullahs in Tehran have to win as well.  The Russo-Iranian stratagem fully envisions that as the energy and economic crises in Europe worsen pressures among the Union's members and on Washington to reach forthwith a nuclear deal with Iran would mount dramatically.  European nations would see a new agreement as their best hope for lifting the Iran sanctions and for Iranian gas and oil exports to resume in full volume, thus alleviating their predicament.  Such an outcome will not only boost the Iranian economy, with billions of dollars flowing in, but enable the Russian-Iranian swap deal to finally materialize.

Little wonder that the Russian permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna (where the negotiations over the nuclear deal have taken place), Mikhail Ulyanov, noted in a tweet on August 17 that "this time more than ever we have a great chance to cross the finish line at the #ViennaTalks.  The final result depends on how the #US reacts to the last Iranian reasonable suggestions.  Let's hope that it doesn't take long for Washington to consider these proposals."

The Iranians could now sit back and wait for Gazprom to deliver the West, instead of its usual cargo, to the negotiating table to sign a nuclear deal to Tehran's liking.  No wonder that the latest Iranian offer was less forthcoming than earlier versions.

A State Department spokesman was quoted in the Washington Post on September 1 as saying, "We are studying it [the new Iranian proposal] and will respond through the EU but unfortunately it is not constructive."

According to the Israeli paper Yisrael Hayom on September 8, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman in a meeting with Democratic congressmen expressed frustration as to Iran's negotiations' stand and reportedly complained that despite the Biden administration's earnest efforts, "Tehran was still using various maneuvers which prevent reaching an agreement."  Consequently, she assessed that there would be no deal before the November 8 midterm elections if at all.

But there is no mystery as to Iran's tactics.  The U.S. secretary's consternation is surprising, given that Tehran's calculations were recently articulated openly.  In an interview in the Qatar-based international radio and TV broadcaster Al Jazeera on September 4, an adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiating team, Mohammad Marandi, all but confirmed the Russo-Iranian plot when he reacted to the State Department spokesman's comments by saying, "Iran will be patient. ... Winter is approaching and the EU is facing a crippling energy crisis. ... The Americans [also] know they will have domestic problems if the energy crisis continues."

Marandi is on firm grounds.  The Iranians know full well how eager the E.U. is for a nuclear deal, so sanctions were lifted, and Iranian gas and oil reach its markets.  If they missed the signals, the E.U.'s foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrel, certainly alerted them to the Union's energy distress during his June visit to the Islamic Republic.  On that occasion, Borrel termed the Iranian response to the E.U.'s latest proposal "reasonable."  In turn, Reuters cited him on August 22 as saying he hoped the U.S. would respond "positively as soon as this week" to an E.U. proposal that aims to " save" the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.  It would not be inconceivable to posit therefore that the E.U. top diplomat's longing for a nuclear deal acted as a powerful catalyst for hatching the plot during Putin's July visit to the mullahs.  Further, Marandi's disclosure that some European governments have already "asked Iran about oil as well as natural gas exports" certainly suggests the two countries had ample reason to believe their plot would work.

Thus, if the Russo-Iranian plot succeeds, not only will the West's "maximum pressure" strategy be overturned, but both Russia and Iran's geopolitical interests will be substantially advanced to the detriment of the free world.  Of greatest concern, once the plot ends up forcing the West to sign the "reasonable" Iranian-offered nuclear deal, it would amount to a de facto endorsement of the mullahs' scheme to acquire nuclear weapons a few years down the road.

Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles, and op-eds on national security issues.

Image: G20 Argentina via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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