Uncertainty grips Iran nuclear deal
One unexpected casualty of Russia’s war on Ukraine could be the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. After almost a year of painstaking and sometimes deadlocked negotiations in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 group, it finally appeared that a deal was in sight. Even the Russian envoy to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted on March 3 that negotiations were “almost over.” Western diplomats concurred that it was a matter of hours before a deal was struck. But a day later, as Russia was waking up to a series of unprecedented Western punitive sanctions, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would insist on written guarantees before backing a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Even the Iranians, who had relied on Russia’s backing when they rejoined the talks last year, were shocked at the Kremlin’s about-face. One Iranian official criticized Moscow for linking US sanctions against Russia to Moscow’s approval of any revised nuclear deal with Tehran, according to media reports. A diplomatically besieged Kremlin is now playing with any card it can get its hands on, even if it means the collapse of the Vienna talks.
Officially, Tehran blamed the US for the sudden “pause” in negotiations and urged Washington to reconsider its position. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said this week that reports in the Western media that the talks are mostly held up by Russia’s demand are part of the US strategy. “Downgrading what is happening in Vienna to one element — meaning Russia’s demand — is what the US wants so everyone would forget its own responsibilities. No one must forget that the party responsible for the fact that we are still at the point of non-agreement is the US,” he was quoted as saying.
But instead of putting pressure on America’s European allies, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian headed to Moscow on Tuesday for talks with his Russian counterpart. That underlined how much Tehran sees Russia as having the final say on what now seems like a troubled deal. What Moscow wants is guarantees from Washington that should ensure “that the current (sanctions) process launched by the US will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran,” Lavrov had said on March 4.
The so-called pause is good news for a number of parties that had resisted the revival of the Iran nuclear deal over a number of issues, including Tehran’s regional behavior. That matters not only to Israel, but also to Gulf countries and others that see Iran’s proxies wreaking havoc in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
What is now clear is that the Iran nuclear deal has become a pawn in a complex geopolitical chess game.
But that may not be the case for the Biden administration and its European partners. The war in Ukraine and the punitive measures taken against Moscow have changed the agenda and made reaching a deal with Iran even more urgent. The West’s dependency on Russian oil and gas has cushioned the full effect of the sanctions. While the US has banned Russian oil and gas imports, the EU has not, leading to steep spikes in energy prices worldwide.
Suddenly, Washington felt that it had to lift sanctions on Venezuelan and Iranian oil exports in order to rein in the energy markets and speed up the process of finding other suppliers for its European partners. Moscow knows Washington’s motives and understands the danger it faces if the EU stops, even after many months, importing Russian oil and gas.
For now, the Iran deal has become hostage to an inconclusive war that Russia has launched and whose devastating global effects are spreading every minute. Closer to home, Iran chose to send its own message to the US and Israel by launching 12 ballistic missiles against a target or targets in Iraq’s northern city of Irbil on Sunday. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed responsibility and said it had hit Israeli “strategic centers.” The US Consulate in Irbil was not targeted. This was a rare occasion when Iran, rather than its proxies, fired at Western targets in Iraq.
While Israel and the Kurdistan government denied Iranian claims, the incident showed how complex and interconnected the regional situation has become. Israel has been targeting Iran-related positions in Syria for years.
Whether Moscow’s new position on the Vienna talks will derail a deal or only delay it is not known. The Biden administration is running out of time. Tehran wants an end to sanctions, while Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has offered to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, may score some points with Russia that could turn the pause in the Vienna talks into an open-ended impasse. What is now clear is that the nuclear deal has become a pawn in a complex geopolitical chess game.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.