Iran, Russia Hold Trade Conference as They Ramp Up Efforts To Evade US Sanctions

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei / Wikimedia Commons
April 7, 2022

Iran and Russia held a joint trade conference in Moscow on Wednesday as the two countries ramp up efforts to bust U.S. sanctions.

At least 70 Iranian companies and 250 "big holding and influential Russian business people" attended the conference, according to a report in Iran's state-controlled media that signals an increase in ties between Tehran and Moscow. Both countries are suffering under the weight of U.S. sanctions and have moved closer to each other as part of a bid to establish a black-market hub that can evade these measures.

Iran's ambassador to Moscow said that more than 300 Russian businesses attended the conference in person and that many others followed virtually. The Iranian diplomat said the event signals that "the two countries of Iran and Russia will witness a leap in their bilateral relations."

Increased trade relations between the rogue nations come as the Biden administration moves to unwind sanctions on Iran as part of a new nuclear deal, which will enable Moscow to use Tehran as a vehicle for its own bid to skirt international pressure. Opponents of the deal on Capitol Hill are increasingly concerned by carveouts in the accord that will enable Russia to cash in on a multibillion-dollar contract to build out portions of Iran's nuclear program. It also is likely the new deal will effectively create a "sanctions evasion hub" in Iran for Russian president Vladimir Putin as international sanctions on Moscow increase as a result of Putin's unprovoked war in Ukraine, according to a policy analysis circulating on Capitol Hill. Additionally, Iran announced on Wednesday that it will soon unveil "nine new nuclear achievements."

With Russia serving as the primary interlocutor in talks, along with China, it has pushed for all U.S. sanctions on Iran to be lifted. Russian negotiators see Tehran as a lucrative marketplace and seek to increase Moscow's foothold in the country via concessions in the new accord.

The Biden administration has reportedly provided Russia with assurances that Moscow will not be targeted with sanctions if it begins construction on new Iranian nuclear sites. Russia announced this week that it had received a letter from the State Department assuring it "that the Ukraine-related sanctions wouldn't affect Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran," according to a report in Iran's state-controlled press.

Provisions in the new accord that will help Iran and Russia increase their economic ties have already received pushback from Republican lawmakers. They say the Biden administration is weakening its own sanctions on Russia in order to finalize the new accord. Concerns are also mounting over a separate concession in the deal that will waive sanctions on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has killed hundreds of Americans and is still waging terrorist attacks on U.S. outposts in the region.

Gabriel Noronha, a State Department special adviser for Iran under former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, said the Russia-Iran alliance hinges on a new nuclear deal. Both countries are pressuring the United States to waive sanctions that have prevented Moscow from performing work on Iran's nuclear sites.

"At the same time that the Biden administration tries to pressure European countries to cut trade with Russia, they're supercharging Russia's trade with Iran to clinch their new deal," said Noronha, who worked on the Iran portfolio during his tenure at the State Department. "It's appalling that they are willing to throw Ukraine under the bus by giving Russia this economic lifeline. Not only does this deal fill the Iranian regime's coffers, it also enriches the corrupt Russian oligarchs who are defending Putin's invasion of Ukraine."