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Obama and Putin: Does the Iran deal predict future cooperation?

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Andrew Harnik/AP

(Read caption) President Barack Obama delivers remarks Tuesday after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. In a New York Times interview, Obama gave Russian president Vladimir Putin credit for ensuring the success of the Iran deal, and talked about the possibility of future cooperation with Russia over Syria.

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Tuesday’s Iran deal may have paved the way for a new partnership – not between Iran and the P5+1 countries, but between two of the P5+1 countries themselves.

President Barack Obama said that during the long-awaited deal’s negotiations he found an unlikely ally in Russian president Vladimir Putin. In an interview with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Mr. Obama said Mr. Putin’s cooperation “surprised” him and was critical to the agreement’s realization. He also referenced a recent phone call from Putin that made him optimistic for future cooperation over Syria.

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“Russia was a help on this,” Obama said. “I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”

Relations between the United States and Russia have long been strained. But they have grown particularly cold in recent months due to disagreement over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Obama has demanded that Russia remove all troops from Ukrainian territory, in accordance with agreements made in Minsk. At the G7 economic summit in Germany last month, Obama accused Putin of "wrecking" Russia's economy in a quest for glory.

Given this tension, Obama said he was “encouraged” by Putin’s call late last month – the first call between the two presidents since February – to discuss continued violence in Syria, where Putin and Obama have taken opposite positions on the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.

Putin, who has been an ally to Assad in the past, may be amending his stance in light of increasing violence in the region, Obama said.

“I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria,” he said. “I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias] and that the prospects for a [Sunni jihadist] takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day. That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

For some observers, the news of the conversation between Obama and Putin was an encouraging sign. "There have been thinly sourced reports about Russia giving up on Assad at times during the four-plus-year long civil war," noted Business Insider, "but this is by far the strongest suggestion yet."

Putin and Obama agreed on the Jun. 25 call to have a meeting arranged between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to talk about the spread of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the Times reported.

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But some suspect Putin’s sudden willingness to work with Obama on Syria and with the P5+1 countries on the Iran nuclear deal may be less of a dedication to particular policy outcomes, and more of a strategy stemming from a desire to stay relevant.

“Mr. Putin’s decision to call Mr. Obama and focus on Syria and Iran may reflect a desire to assert his continuing importance on the world stage despite Russia’s isolation and failure to break the Western consensus on sanctions,” the Times reported.