On July 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Iran on an official visit and held meetings with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and 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 on both countries, which includes heavy economic sanctions as well as limitations on the two countries’ ability to procure new armaments.
The Russo-Iranian 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 the goals of this plot.
Second, increasing the pressure for a new nuclear deal with Iran, which would involve the lifting of Western sanctions on the exportation of Iranian oil and gas.
The plot appears to been outlined in May, when Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak arrived in Tehran for talks. 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.”
The plan, then, is for Iran to import Russian crude from off its northern Caspian coast and then sell an equivalent amount of crude to Asia-Pacific markets. This will be done via Iranian tankers originating in the Persian Gulf. Iran will then refine the Russian oil to meet its domestic demand, and once a nuclear deal is reached, Iranian oil from the south will be exempt from sanctions.
In a nutshell, the plot involves Russia exporting its energy to northern Iran, while similar quantities of Iranian oil and gas are exported to the Asia-Pacific region from the south.
Once this framework was put in place, implementation of the plot began in earnest. On July 25, within a week of Putin’s visit to Iran, Gazprom announced that it would reduce “the daily throughput” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany to 33 million cubic meters. The excuse was that pipeline was shut 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 grace followed soon after. On Aug. 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 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. Unsurprisingly, the Eurozone inflation rate hit a record high in August at 9.1%, driven by a 38.3% increase in energy prices. A slowdown in European economies looks inevitable and a continental recession may have already begun. It will likely take effect this winter. The only question remaining is how deep it will be and how long it will last.
Putin is certainly having his revenge. Not only is he punishing the European Union for its support for Ukraine, he may expect some of its members (Hungary in particular) to peel off and reach a separate energy deal with Moscow. As the energy crisis intensifies, 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 55% of gas consumption—the heaviest in Europe.
So far, this has been a major win for Putin. However, for the plot to work, the mullahs in Tehran have to win as well. The Russo-Iranian plot envisions that, as the energy and economic crises in Europe worsen, pressure on the U.S. from the European Union to reach a nuclear deal with Iran will increase dramatically. European nations will see a new agreement as their best hope for resuming Iranian gas and oil exports, thus alleviating their predicament. Such an outcome will not only boost the Iranian economy, with billions of dollars flowing in, but enable the Russo-Iranian deal to succeed.
It is not surprising, then, that Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna—where the nuclear deal negotiations are taking place—noted in a tweet on Aug. 17, “There have been reasons for optimism before, but on previous occasions expectations were not met. This time more than ever we have a great chance to cross the finish line at the Vienna talks. The final result depends on how the U.S. reacts to the last Iranian reasonable suggestions. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take long for Washington to consider these proposals.”
If the Russo-Iranian plot succeeds, the West’s “maximum pressure” strategy would be overturned. Russian and Iranian economic and security interests would be substantially advanced to the detriment of the free world. The biggest concern, however, is that if the plot succeeds in forcing the West to accept the “reasonable” Iranian “suggestions” on the 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.