How Russia's Iran talks gambit throws nuclear deal into confusion

Analysts say Russian diplomats are seeking leverage in response to sanctions over Ukraine

Iran nuclear talks are taking place at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, Austria. Tim Stickings/The National
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Russia is keeping the Iran nuclear talks in suspense to make a point to its rivals in a ploy that also complicates Tehran’s negotiating position, analysts said as a deal between world powers remained tantalisingly out of reach in Vienna.

Western optimism that a deal was imminent has been replaced by near-silence from European negotiators and a warning from France that “the window of opportunity is closing”, amid frustration that Russia’s last-minute demand to discuss the sanctions on its own elite is prolonging the talks.

The late complication also appeared to take Iran by surprise, with senior officials putting out mixed signals on Thursday as they try to get sanctions lifted without antagonising a regime with similar interests in Moscow.

Behind the police patrols and luxury cars at Vienna’s Palais Coburg, the drawn-out diplomacy resumed on Thursday with negotiators yet to receive a final text that they could take back to their political leaders for approval.

While western officials hoped that the discussions were largely over, the Russian delegation is seeking assurances that sanctions over the war in Ukraine will not affect its bilateral ties with Iran, in what Moscow’s delegate Mikhail Ulyanov acknowledged was a late twist to the 11-month talks.

But analysts who spoke to The National played down the significance of the Russia-Iran trading relationship and said Moscow’s real interest appeared to be in retaliating against western sanctions.

“It’s mostly about Russia versus the West, and getting some leverage,” said Dr Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on Iranian foreign policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came just as diplomats appeared to be bringing a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, within sight in the closed-door negotiations.

A restoration of the deal would mean that sanctions on Iran are lifted in return for its compliance with limits on its nuclear activities, which are designed to stop it developing an atom bomb but which it has openly flouted since 2018.

'New circumstances'

Russia was one of the original parties to the deal along with Britain, France, Germany, China and the US, and Mr Ulyanov had long been notable for his optimism that the pact would be revived.

But he used his latest appearance outside the five-star Vienna negotiating venue to say that Russia had “the right to protect our interests” in view of the “new circumstances” brought about by western sanctions.

Those include an oil and gas embargo intended to hit Russia’s exports at a time when Iran could start selling fuel again if sanctions on Tehran are lifted.

However, this competition should not be a major concern to Moscow because Iran’s estimated reserve of 100 million barrels of oil would be a one-time sell-off that would not be a substitute for Russia’s long-term supplies, said Dr David Jalilvand, managing director of the consultancy Orient Matters in Berlin.

Russia’s crude oil exports, at 5m barrels a day, are higher than Iran’s total pre-sanctions level of production, at 3.8m a day, said Dr Jalilvand.

For the Russian delegation in Vienna, “the energy issue is not decisive — what matters is geopolitics,” he said.

Mr Ulyanov, meanwhile, denied Russia was sabotaging the talks. He rejected a suggestion from a former US official that it was seeking to use Iran as an outlet for sanction-free business as it faces isolation from much of the world economy.

European delegations would not be drawn on Russia’s latest moves, which threw up the possibility of a deal being blocked or a workaround being found without Russia.

The talks are based around the US and Iran returning to compliance with the pact, leaving it open to interpretation whether Russian assent is strictly necessary.

But any alterations to what was signed in 2015 could leave the deal vulnerable to a congressional challenge in the US, where critics of the JCPOA are seeking an opportunity to stop it in its tracks.

Another option would be a more limited agreement between Iran and the US, but this would require direct negotiations between the two sides which have not taken place during the 11-month talks.

Iran in 'difficult position'

Iran appeared to be caught out by Russia’s gambit and would probably not have approved because the demands from Moscow go beyond the terms of the JCPOA, said Dr Azizi.

That conflicts with Iran’s insistence that the talks must stick to the JCPOA and not stray into issues such as ballistic missiles and support for regional militias which the US and Gulf countries would like to discuss.

Tehran initially said it was waiting for an explanation from Russia, which it received in the form of a phone call from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. A foreign ministry spokesman separately said that Iran understood Russia's concern.

That statement “could be a sign that Iran does not want to antagonise Russia in light of the broader strategic relationship between the two countries as well as Russia’s key role at the nuclear negotiations,” said Dr Jalilvand.

Dr Azizi said Iran was “in a very difficult position, because on the one hand it needs the deal and sanctions relief, and on the other hand it cannot risk its relationship with Russia,” said Dr Azizi.

Although trading links are limited, Iran and Russia have a history of co-operation around the region and “a shared worldview in seeing US influence as being negative”, said Dr Sanam Vakil of the Chatham House think tank.

In another ambiguous set of statements on Thursday, senior Iranian officials said they were negotiating according to plan but that Iran’s defensive power should not be reduced and that the talks were getting “knottier by the hour”.

President Ebrahim Raisi said the government had “vigorously pursued the removal” of sanctions that have weakened Iran’s economy, while other officials have cautioned against torpedoing the negotiations.

Dr Vakil said there were divisions within Iran’s ruling circles about how much the country should warm to Russia and that its negotiators would probably try to find a way of keeping the JCPOA alive.

“There are many members of the Iranian security establishment that have developed admiration and strong ties with Russia,” she said. “You have others inside Iran that are more suspicious of Russia’s influence.”

Updated: March 11, 2022, 8:25 AM