Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Could Hijack Iran Nuclear Deal
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow on October 6, 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Could Hijack Iran Nuclear Deal

If a revived nuclear deal is not signed soon, Iran could come ever closer to achieving a nuclear weapon

Less than a month ago, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, in reference to the nearly yearlong effort to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with the world powers, that a “good agreement” was within reach. Just 10 days ago, he said that Iran is “seriously reviewing” a rough draft of an updated nuclear agreement, under which Iran would limit its weapons-grade nuclear production in exchange for a rollback of crushing international sanctions. Over the weekend the International Atomic Energy Agency chief visited the Islamic Republic and the two sides signed off on a plan to resolve some nuclear issues that have been holding up the deal.

But one of the world powers – the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – that signed the original deal with Iran may now be holding up a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

That would be Russia, which on February 24 launched an invasion of Ukraine, sucking the air out of the efforts to reach the finish line on the agreement.

And Russia’s attempts to involve the nuclear deal in its invasion of Ukraine has even frustrated the Islamic Republic. An unnamed senior Iranian official told Reuters that Russia’s attempt to “secure its interests in other places” by adding conditions to a revived nuclear deal is “not constructive for Vienna nuclear talks.”

Russia, one of the world powers that signed the original 2015 deal, and has been active in the indirect negotiations to bring the US back into the deal that it left in 2018 under former President Donald Trump, is now demanding guarantees from the United States before it is willing to sign on to the deal, causing a new wrinkle in the process that threatens to become a giant problem.

That’s because Iran is not the only country to feel the bite of US sanctions.

The US and its Western allies, have levied what Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called an “avalanche of aggressive sanctions” on Russia over its invasion and apparent attempt to take over all or parts of Ukraine, and they do not appear to be finished levying more sanctions, which could soon move to include Russia’s oil and nuclear energy sectors.

What Russia is looking for, Lavrov said over the weekend, is a written guarantee from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or better yet US President Joe Biden, that these sanctions will not affect its right under the renewed deal to operate in Iran’s civilian nuclear program, and to sell arms to Iran.

“We have asked for a written guarantee . . . that the current process triggered by the United States does not in any way damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with the Islamic State,” Lavrov said in a news conference.

Part of trade that Russia would develop with Iran under the new deal would be to receive enriched uranium from Iran and exchange it for yellowcake, as Russia turns Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility into a research center.

France on Monday accused Russia of “blackmail” over its attempts to hijack progress in the Iran nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, the US continues to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal as if Russia is not attacking Ukraine, and to levy sanctions on Russia as if it is not a key player in the negotiations with Iran, particularly Russia’s mediating between the US and Iran, which will not negotiate directly with the Americans.

“The new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on its potential implementation,” a State Department spokesman said over the weekend, Reuters reported. “We continue to engage with Russia on a return to full implementation of the JCPOA. Russia shares a common interest in ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.”

The U.S. left the agreement in May 2018, and Iran has since mid-2019 increased its uranium enrichment capability to just short of producing nuclear-weapons-grade uranium. Soon, experts warn, Iran will be so close to having enough material for a nuclear weapon that a deal will not be possible.

The signing of a deal with Iran right now appears even more critical, due to the potential halt of the purchase of Russian oil because of sanctions over the war in Ukraine. Many European countries rely heavily on Russian oil. Iranian oil would ease the crisis and potentially stanch the meteoric rise in gas prices.

It could be that Russia’s decision to hold up the deal is related to its reliance on the revenue it receives for the sale of its oil. The return of Iranian oil to the international market could make it easier for the international community to get by without Russian oil, which is soon to be targeted by the Ukrainian war sanctions.

In fact, oil prices on Monday rose to their highest levels since 2008 as the double whammy of the specter of Russian sanctions and the likely delay of an Iran nuclear deal hit the international economy.

If a nuclear deal is not signed soon, Iran could come ever closer to achieving a nuclear weapon.

Iran has begun enriching uranium to up to 60% purity, which experts say is a short technical step from the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon, and much higher than the limit of 3.67% under the previous agreement.

If no deal is signed, Israel – which has consistently lobbied against the JCPOA – will retain the option of launching a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, which could lead to regional unrest.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for the Islamic Republic to develop closer ties with Russia a direct result of his fear and suspicion of the United States. His call is echoed by senior Iranian officials, emboldened by the election over the summer of a hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi.

And some have suggested the last-minute monkey wrench that Russia has thrown into the nuclear deal could have the opposite effect, bringing Iran and the US – which both want to sign a nuclear deal – closer together.

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