The conflict in Ukraine represents a game changer for the Gulf, pushing regional heavyweights to navigate a challenging geopolitical landscape, which has inevitably become increasingly polarised. Russia’s invasion has indeed pushed many regional powers towards a delicate balancing act, as they navigate between the need to maintain their traditional partnership with the West, while becoming irresistibly attracted by the gravitational pull of Beijing and Moscow.
In this peculiar context, maintaining a neutral stance speaks volumes about the political orientation that is inspiring decision-makers in different Arab capitals: in their thinking, maintaining close contacts with Russia would indeed prove valuable once the post-American era becomes a reality in the whole region As local leaders start to show their true colours, becoming less receptive to the requests coming from the US, Iran clearly stands out as the most likely beneficiary of the hedging strategy visibly adopted by the Gulf countries.
Earlier this month, negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal have reached the last mile in Vienna. Recent progress has been made despite multiple challenges, including a last-minute demand from Russia requesting guarantees from the US that western sanctions targeting Moscow would not affect its business with Iran. Russia’s demands have gradually shifted from a maximalist position, following the opposition of the other members of the P5+1 and additional pressure from Iran itself.
Indeed, on the 15th of March the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, during which it was made public that Russia had finally received the written guarantees it was requesting. Official US sources later confirmed that there would be no sanctions on Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of the JCPOA, implicitly denying earlier reports about the possible targeting of the Russian State-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom, which is working on the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Despite the strategic partnership between Moscow and Teheran continues to hold, these recent developments suggest unusual frictions regarding the full resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in part solved during Amir-Abdollahian’s visit.
On the other hand, the US return to the deal (from which it withdrew in 2018) is both in the interest of Iran, eager to see the economic sanctions finally lifted; and the US, which hopes that its return to the nuclear deal would help ease the global oil crisis that resulted from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recent estimates say that over the next 6 months Teheran could potentially increase its production from 1 to 2,5 million barrels per day, partially offsetting the loss of Russian oil on the global markets.
Despite the significant hurdles still lying ahead (including the activities of Iran’s network of proxies in the region and the removal of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations – FTOs) the revival of the JCPOA continues to remain a likely scenario, for which regional powerhouses are getting ready: the meeting of top diplomats of the normalisation front in the Negev desert at the end of March is clearly intended to show a common front against Iran, regardless of the final outcome of the negotiation on the nuclear deal.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region