How much influence does Russia’s nuclear threat have on Iran? - analysis

As Iran works with Russia increasingly, supplying drones to Russia for Moscow’s war on Ukraine, Iran is watching the nuclear brinkmanship closely.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran, Iran, July 19, 2022 (photo credit: PRESIDENT WEBSITE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran, Iran, July 19, 2022
(photo credit: PRESIDENT WEBSITE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

If, according to reports, Iran is still interested in a nuclear deal with the West, it must consider its own use of nuclear blackmail that it can use as influence.

This means that Iran may be paying attention to how Russia is conducting its war in Ukraine. Russia has spread rumors about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, leading some in the West to believe it may use “tactical” nuclear weapons, or even conduct some kind of “false flag” attack.

Iran may be paying attention since it has been developing nuclear technology for years and has used nuclear blackmail for decades, holding out the chance for “diplomacy” to prevent Tehran from constructing a nuclear weapon.

Iran nuclear deal and blackmail

Back in 2009, the US sought to work with Russia to find a way forward with Iran towards what became the JCPOA or “Iran deal” in 2015. Yet, Iran had actually worked on nuclear technology with Russian support.

Iran claimed its nuclear program was peaceful, but has used the same program to threaten Israel and the West. For many years the threat was seen mostly in terms of Israel-Iran tensions. However, over the last decade, the Iranian drive for nuclear technology has also worried the rest of the Middle East. There are concerns that if Iran chooses to pursue nuclear weapons other countries will want the same weapons.

 An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

A nuclear arms race in the Middle East now isn’t the only concern.

As Iran works with Russia increasingly, supplying drones to Russia for Moscow’s war on Ukraine, Iran is watching the nuclear brinkmanship closely.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently indicated that the US still has an interest in Iran’s nuclear program returning to the limitations of the 2015 deal.

During a recent meeting with Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, the Iranians continued to hint at the possibility for progress on a nuclear agreement. Belarus may not be connected to this issue, but Russia is.

This might also be a message to the West. The blatant nuclear threats have toned down, while Iran continues to deny supplying Russia with drones. This is because Iran realizes that European states are outraged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Iran knows that its work with Russia could harm its chances to continue to influence Europe.

Back in 2009, Iran benefited from the Obama administration’s pivot from providing air defenses to eastern Europe to working with Russia on Iran talks. Iran also benefited from the fact that European countries wanted to increase trade with Tehran.

Back then, Iran sold the West a narrative about how Israel was the only country that opposed the deal; op-eds argued that if there wasn’t a deal there would be “war.” The Iranian narrative suggested that the US shouldn’t fight another conflict in the Middle East, and certainly not on behalf of Israel. This worked for a while.

Today, the situation is reversed.

Russia is using Iranian drones, helping Iran increasingly to appear to be part of the Russia-China camp, not a country that anyone can do a deal with. Iran has toned down its rhetoric because it realizes it is quickly burning its bridges in Europe.

European countries know that Iran is sending Russia drones. If Iran makes nuclear threats now, it will be seen as no different from Russia.

Additionally, in the old days Iran used to pretend its leadership was merely being mistranslated when they threatened Israel. Today, Western countries take Israel’s position seriously. The days when Iran could pretend it has a “fatwa” against nuclear weapons is no longer bought by Western media; no one poses smiling with Iran’s leadership.

At the same time, Tehran is suppressing protests, which has also harmed its image. The time when countries could ignore Iran’s suppression of human rights – and killing of innocent civilians – is over.

Iran has toned down its nuclear threats because it sees that Russia isn’t getting much out of them. Russia’s threats haven’t led the West to appease Moscow. There is no talk today of a “deal or war” with Moscow, except among fringe commentators on the far Left and far Right.

The “diplomacy or war” narrative no longer seems to work either. Iran’s leaders in the last decade, some of whom were either educated in the West or have had advisers who were educated in the West, now know the nuclear blackmail is wearing thin.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voiced concern in September about Iran’s uranium stockpile. Its report estimated that Iran has 55.6 kilograms (122.6 pounds) of uranium enriched to up to 60% fissile purity, an increase of 12.5 kilograms since May, according to a report by the Associated Press. Iran is not talking up its enrichment today the way it did in 2019-2021 when, after the Trump administration walked away from the Iran deal, Iran began to ratchet up the enrichment threats.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has complicated the issue for Iran. It could embolden Iran to conduct more lawless threats in the Middle East. But it could also mean Iran knows the world is focused on Ukraine and Iran’s usual headline-grabbing threats will no longer grab headlines.

Since Iran’s nuclear blackmail is partly an influence operation designed to win concessions, Tehran may now think that no one cares and that its propaganda won’t get any traction. In the past, Iran appeared calculated in its choices, like launching attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May and June 2019.

When the Trump administration abandoned the Iran deal in May 2018, Iran appeared to wait a year before increasing attacks against ships and US forces in Iraq. Iran is thus influenced on multiple levels by the war in Ukraine.

So far on the nuclear front, Tehran appears to know that it is in a difficult position. The US and the West no longer feel they need a deal at any cost and Iran’s work with Russia on drone threats has angered the West. Iran can no longer sell the West anti-Israel talking points via its extensive network of regime lobbyists and appeasers in the West either, because now many countries are listening to Israel and are keen to learn from Israel about air defenses.