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There's a big debate in Moscow over whether to support the Iran nuclear deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Shanghai in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Shanghai in 2014.

This is part two of a three-part interview. Part one: Russia and the US. Part three: the risks of war.

In the decade after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the great-power politics of the Middle East were about as clear as things can get in the region. Israel, Egypt, and Sunni Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia generally aligned with the United States. Syria and Iran led an "axis of resistance" backed by Russia. It wasn't as contentious or as neat as the proxy divisions of the Cold War, but it put the US and Russia on clear and opposing sides.

Now everything is changing. The geopolitics of the Middle East has been scrambled by the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. It is less clear all the time where American and Russian interests in the region conflict and where they coincide. This is especially true in the Syrian war, where the US opposes both Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. It's also true with the Iran nuclear talks, in which both the US and Russia oppose Iran's nuclear program and have worked together on finding a deal — but may want very different things for how this affects Iran's role in the Mideast.

To understand how Russia sees the Middle East's transformation, Amanda Taub and I met with Fyodor Lukyanov in Moscow. The editor of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs" and chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Lukyanov is one of Russia's most influential and well-connected foreign policy experts. He is widely considered to reflect the views of Russia's official foreign policy establishment.

Speaking to him, I was struck by the division he described within Moscow's foreign policy establishment over what to do on Iran: the disagreement is not about Iran's nuclear program — both sides, he said, want to end it — but rather over whether this would be too beneficial to the US. On Syria and ISIS, as well, Russian thinking seems preoccupied with the United States and countering it.

What follows is a transcript of the section of our conversation that touched on Russia's approach to the Middle East. Sections on Russia's relationship with the US and on its increasingly dangerous tensions with Europe will be published separately. This has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Max Fisher: In December 2012 you told the New York Times that you had spoken to "people sent by the Russian leadership" to Syria, and that they found Assad had given up all hope. You said, "His mood is that he will be killed anyway. If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people. If he stays, he will be killed by his opponents."

So much has happened in Syria in the last two and a half years. Do you have a sense for how Assad’s view has changed since then?

Fyodor Lukyanov: The description at that time was that Assad was very depressed, he was very fatalistic, because he didn’t see any way out, which meant it didn’t make sense for him to give up or make concessions.

Since then, very many circumstances changed. As I understand it, the view of the Syrian government is now completely different. The fact of the Islamic State, and that they don’t control a big part of the country, is bad enough.

In 2012 and 2013, [Assad] really expected direct intervention by the Americans, maybe by a coalition, and he feared the Libyan scenario. Not anymore. Since 2013, first there was the whole zigzag with chemical arms, and then the emergence of the Islamic State. On the one hand, it created a very big threat to Assad, but on the other hand it basically eliminated the issue of regime change in Damascus, because the prioritization is different.

So now I think he’s very keen to keep what he still controls. And he firmly believes he can do it. That’s what I hear from people who visit Syria.

Fyodor Lukyanov speaks at a 2014 conference in London (Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Fyodor Lukyanov speaks at a 2014 conference in London. (Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for the New York Times)

Max Fisher: Has Russian policy toward Syria changed?

Fyodor Lukyanov: No. The situation has changed; Russian policy has not changed.

I think the Russian position is even more committed to this [policy of supporting Assad and opposing regime change]. I remember a lot of conversations with Westerners and people from the Arab Gulf saying, "Okay, we understand why you do it, but it’s completely crazy because don’t you understand he’s doomed."

Many Russian experts from 2011, when the common wisdom was that Assad would fall very soon, they told me from the beginning, "It will not happen; it’s a completely different situation than in Egypt or Tunisia." And I thought at that time, as many Westerners did, that was just because they wanted to save face. But in fact they were right, because they knew better the situation inside Syrian society.

Max Fisher: Are the US and Russia closer now on Syria, do you think?

Fyodor Lukyanov: The prioritization has changed. Now it’s obvious to the Obama administration that Assad is not the biggest problem anymore. He’s still a person they hate; that position didn’t change. The gap [between the US and Russia] is narrower because the priority of regime change in Syria is much lower on the US agenda.

The general perception here, shared by many people of different opinions, is that the old US policy in the Middle East since the early 2000s was insane, it was a disaster. So now when Americans call other nations, and Russians also, to join a coalition against, for example, the Islamic State, the answer is, "Okay, to do what? To do what you did before? No, thank you." Otherwise, if we can invent a new strategy, to combat it? Then yes, but no one knows what to do about the Islamic State.

Max Fisher: Let me ask you about Iran and the Iran nuclear negotiations. Is the view in the Russian leadership that this is an issue where Russian and US interests align?

Fyodor Lukyanov: It’s not that they align. It’s that they don’t necessarily contradict.

If they were aligned, it would be that we could work together to achieve something. With Iran, I think the Russian diplomatic team worked very hard to help make this happen. And I think [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov, who was the chief negotiator on the Russian side, is a very good diplomat and he did his best to help the Iranians and Americans reach an agreement.

At the same time, it’s not an official line, but there are a lot of people here saying, "Why should we help the Americans to reconcile with the Iranians, or the Iranians to reconcile with the Americans? If Iran is not isolated, it can turn to the West, at least in terms of its economy, in terms of contracts and so on. It’s not in our interests."

Max Fisher: So there is a debate within Moscow over this?

Fyodor Lukyanov: It’s a debate. It’s not an official line; the official line is very firm: we need to settle this issue, we don’t want Iran to go nuclear, we need to work together.

But the expert community [within Russia] is split. I personally think it’s a very shortsighted view that we need to keep Iran isolated as long as possible. It’s senseless. It’s a very important country, and Iranians want to get out of isolation. If they want this, it’s senseless to try to stop them.

There was a very interesting maneuver, the recent decision by Putin to remove the ban and deliver the S-300 [advanced surface-to-air missile systems] to Iran. I’m not sure it will happen. Military experts say it’s not that easy, because you need to have this equipment. They don’t just store them in storages. And it’s a long process.

Maybe it will not be delivered, but Russia wants to send the message to Iran that we’re ready to cooperate. And Iran was extremely furious when Russia [initially canceled the planned S-300 sale to Iran] in 2010. Ahmadinejad expressed this in very pejorative terms about [then–President Dmitry] Medvedev personally. So I think Russia is expecting very hard competition for the Iranian market, and wants to take some preemptive steps to show Iran can be a reliable partner.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia, in 2013, where he reportedly discussed Russia's plan to sell S-300 missile systems to Syria. Putin later cancelled the sale. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia, in 2013, where he reportedly discussed Russia's plan to sell S-300 missile systems to Syria. Putin later canceled the sale. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty)

Max Fisher: Is the sale just about trying to get into the Iranian market, or is there a political element, as well?

Fyodor Lukyanov: I think it’s mostly about commerce, with a political element, of course.

Putin was recently asked publicly about Russia’s relationship with Israel, in this context. He explained in detail why Russia, because of Israel, canceled a similar deal in Syria but could not cancel this deal in Iran. In the Syrian case, he said, We heard concerns from Israelis, we studied their arguments, and we concluded they were right that this S-300 might be used against them because it’s a very short distance. And so we decided to take their concerns into account.

In the Iranian case, it’s not about offense. Iran cannot attack Israel with this S-300; it’s only to protect against airstrikes. And airstrikes, as Russia says all the time, is the completely wrong way to solve the Iranian nuclear problem.

Max Fisher: I think some people are wondering whether the S-300 sale was an unofficial component of the nuclear framework deal reached in April.

Fyodor Lukyanov: I don’t know. I don’t know if it was included. The Russian Foreign Ministry people say they didn’t [want to] announce it until the basic [framework] deal was completed, so now they’re pretty sure the full deal will come into force in June.

Max Fisher: Really? The view in Moscow about the Iran nuclear deal is optimistic that it will actually happen?

Fyodor Lukyanov: Yes.

And the view is that had this [S-300 sale] been announced before [the framework deal], it would have harmed the negotiations. Now it will not harm the negotiations.

Max Fisher: On the debate within Moscow over how to approach the Iran issue, is it harder to make the argument for a nuclear deal as tensions rise with the West? Are those tensions weakening the pro-deal side of the argument?

Fyodor Lukyanov: No, to argue for the Iran deal is quite easy, because we should help because the Iranians are important to us.

It’s a country that plays an increasingly important role in the whole region, and that’s their wish to get rid of sanctions and to settle that process. So if we want to enhance our relationship with Iran, we need to help them. They will come to terms with the Americans anyway, with us or without us, now or later.