Report

The Iran Nuclear Talks’ Breakout Player

Love him or hate him, Russia’s man in Vienna has become the Iran deal’s unofficial spokesman.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, arrives for a meeting in Vienna on April 15, 2021. Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS
By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

This past December, with the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on the brink of collapse over Tehran’s refusal to permit international monitoring of a vital nuclear facility, Russia’s chief negotiator in the talks brokered a deal securing access for the inspectors and averting a major diplomatic crisis.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, has emerged as an unlikely champion of the nuclear deal that U.S. President Joe Biden has identified as his prime foreign-policy goal in the Middle East, and in the process he has garnered praise from senior U.S. officials and other observers who believe Ulyanov has helped keep the talks on track.

Along the way, he has earned a degree of celebrity with his Twitter feed, where he performs as a one-man chronicler and cheering squad for the nuclear pact while also challenging the U.S. effort to apply political and economic pressure on the Iranian government.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, arrives for a meeting in Vienna on April 15, 2021. Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS

This past December, with the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on the brink of collapse over Tehran’s refusal to permit international monitoring of a vital nuclear facility, Russia’s chief negotiator in the talks brokered a deal securing access for the inspectors and averting a major diplomatic crisis.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, has emerged as an unlikely champion of the nuclear deal that U.S. President Joe Biden has identified as his prime foreign-policy goal in the Middle East, and in the process he has garnered praise from senior U.S. officials and other observers who believe Ulyanov has helped keep the talks on track.

Along the way, he has earned a degree of celebrity with his Twitter feed, where he performs as a one-man chronicler and cheering squad for the nuclear pact while also challenging the U.S. effort to apply political and economic pressure on the Iranian government.

“He saw the potential for shaping the news agenda on Twitter,” said one senior diplomat who spoke to Ulyanov about his Twitter diplomacy, and who requested anonymity to discuss a private conversation. “He saw a niche.”

“Ulyanov’s Twitter feed is the closest thing to real-time updates on the granular diplomatic work being conducted behind closed doors,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, which supports a return to the nuclear deal. “Western officials have been a bit coy with their assessments; the Iranians are perennially overstating the amount of progress, and the Chinese have kept their cards close to their chests. So by default he’s become the unofficial spokesperson for the negotiations.”

“He is a classic diplomat because of his indefatigable desire to see the glass half full while basking in multilateral diplomacy’s trench warfare,” Vaez added. “He has saved the Iran nuclear talks from collapse and Iran-IAEA relations from meltdown half a dozen times in the past few months.”

But Ulyanov’s critics say the Russian diplomat is merely serving his government’s traditional role as Iran’s chief great-power advocate, engaging in diplomacy to undercut U.S. leverage and secure the best possible deal for a critical client state. The U.S. and other Western governments, critics contend, have unwisely afforded Russia’s envoy too prominent a role as a mediator between Washington and Tehran, which are not negotiating directly with one another in Vienna.

“Ulyanov is an ally of the Iranians at the direction of Moscow,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is critical of the nuclear pact. “If you put the Russians in the driver’s seat of negotiations with Iran, you are obviously going to get the results that put the Russians in the driver’s seat.”

“I consider him one of the chief disinformation officers for the Russian Federation when it comes to protecting client states under pressure from the international community on arms control issues,” added Goldberg, who has sparred with Ulyanov on Twitter. He said Ulyanov has led efforts in Vienna to sow doubts about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and shield that regime from censure or sanctions. “He has been one of the greatest public defenders of the Assad regime,” Goldberg said.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, stands outside a hotel in Vienna.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, stands outside a hotel in Vienna.

Ulyanov stands outside the Grand Hotel Wien, where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran are talking place, in Vienna on April 27, 2021. JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

Still, Russia’s Iran diplomacy marks a sharp contrast to Moscow’s belligerent approach to a range of other issues, including its stationing of more than 100,000 troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine, which has fueled fears among Ukrainian and U.S. officials that it intends to invade.

Indeed, the Vienna talks are unfolding as the United States and Russia are headed toward increased confrontation, with Biden mulling the prospect of deploying thousands of U.S. troops to Baltic states neighboring Ukraine, and the Department of Homeland Security warning that Russia may be prepared to mount a cyberattack on critical U.S. infrastructure if it believes the U.S. or NATO response to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens its national security. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently threatened “retaliatory military-technical measures” against the United States and its NATO allies if they continue what he perceives as aggressive action along Russia’s border.

But relations between the United States and Russia in Vienna have been decidedly cordial. Following his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Iran talks provided “an example of how the United States and Russia can work together on security issues of shared concern.” Blinken said that a brief window for concluding a deal is rapidly closing and that the prospect of returning to the nuclear pact may become impossible without an agreement in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. negotiating team led by Special Envoy Robert Malley appears to be split over how much flexibility to show in the nuclear talks. The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that Malley’s deputy, Richard Nephew, one of the architects of the 2015 nuclear deal, has withdrawn from the negotiating team after advocating a tougher line on Iran. Two other members of the team have also stepped back from their involvement for similar reasons, according to the report. A State Department spokesperson did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the report. But another U.S. official confirmed the gist of the story to Foreign Policy.

But those internal differences likely had little bearing on the United States and its Western allies’ interactions with Russia related to the talks surrounding the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

“Russia is an important partner in these talks,” the State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “We engage very constructively with Russia, including Ambassador Ulyanov, on a mutual return to the JCPOA, as Russia shares a common interest in ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.”

“We are ready to cooperate with each other on issues of common interest. Iran is a case in point. We have common interests in the restoration of JCPOA, and we don’t mix up these pragmatic goals.”

“Russia sees a nuclear Iran as a destabilizing threat [in the Middle East], as we do,” one senior Western diplomat told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So, although we’re not totally like-minded on [Iran] and there are differences of emphasis about the balance between pressure and sanctions and sticks and carrots, I don’t think there is such a total disconnect in how they see the problem and how we see the problem.”

“We are adult persons; we are pragmatic,” Ulyanov told Foreign Policy in a Zoom interview last month, noting that contentious issues like the clash over Ukraine don’t spill into the Iran talks. “We are ready to cooperate with each other on issues of common interest. Iran is a case in point. We have common interests in the restoration of JCPOA, and we don’t mix up these pragmatic goals.”

“We never discuss Ukraine, Latin America, or Australia or whatever,” he said. “We don’t mix up these pragmatic goals [with] these other, I will say, alien issues which have nothing to do with the Iranian nuclear deal. Our task is very pragmatic. And we focus on it.”

Ulyanov said that then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and ratchet up sanctions on Tehran as part of a “maximum pressure campaign” has proved “extremely detrimental to the United States, to Israel, to practically everybody, because Iran—and I believe they had the right to do that—decided that if the other side, meaning the United States, does not fulfill its commitments, then they can deviate significantly from their commitments on the JCPOA. The result is very negative, and the sooner we reverse the process, the better.”

A staff member removes an Iranian flag from the stage—seen next to a U.S. flag—at Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
A staff member removes an Iranian flag from the stage—seen next to a U.S. flag—at Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.

A staff member removes an Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the United States, Iran, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on July 14, 2015. CARLOS BARRIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Russia has been pressing Iran to consider an interim deal that would involve limited sanctions relief in exchange for some restrictions on its nuclear program, according to a report by NBC News.

“Setting aside motivation, the Russians have been pretty constructive, delivering serious messages to the Iranians about how much risk they are running,” one diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of nuclear negotiations. “The Iranians even ignore the Russians for a while, but when the Russians are saying, ‘What you are doing is unacceptable, and we won’t protect you,’ that gets the Iranians’ attention. It is not necessarily convincing them, but the Iranians look around and they know they don’t have any other friends.”

The Biden administration first began nuclear talks in early April 2021, the first of six rounds of negotiations it undertook with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government. The key signatories of the 2015 agreement—China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union—set up two working groups to define which sanctions the United States would have to lift to reenter the deal and what constraints Iran would have to place on its nuclear activities.

“Setting aside motivation, the Russians have been pretty constructive, delivering serious messages to the Iranians about how much risk they are running,” one diplomat said.

In June, the Rouhani government and the Biden administration agreed on a basic agenda for detailed talks on sanctions and nuclear requirements. But Rouhani’s hard-line successor, Ebrahim Raisi—who was elected president in June 2021 and took office in early August—delayed talks for several months.

On Nov. 29, a new Iranian delegation, led by Ali Bagheri Kani, resumed a seventh round of negotiations. Bagheri Kani initially reneged on the June deal, insisting on limiting the talks to the lifting of all U.S. sanctions, and raising concerns about Tehran’s willingness to rejoin the nuclear pact.

Bagheri Kani made it clear he was not interested in discussing Iran’s nuclear obligations under the 2015 pact, a position that the United States and its European allies considered a nonstarter. Russia and China, however, urged the Iranian delegation to accept the previous agreement.

By December, U.S. and European officials were growing increasingly despondent over the prospect of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran, meanwhile, was locked in a feud with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and had sharply restricted the agency’s access to surveillance cameras at Iranian nuclear sites, including the Karaj nuclear facility, where Iran removed four cameras, citing an ongoing investigation into a sabotage attack that had ruined one of the cameras. Tehran attributed the attack to Israel.

But Ulyanov intervened repeatedly to try to keep the talks on track, according to Vaez, who said that the Russian diplomat helped persuade Bagheri Kani in November to agree to discuss Iran’s nuclear obligations in parallel to talks on sanctions relief. He said Ulyanov had also been helpful in persuading the Iranian leadership to meet with the IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi, in Tehran to resolve disputes over the nuclear inspectors’ access. He also played a critical role in convincing Tehran to agree to reinstall the IAEA camera at Karaj, and in laying the groundwork for an eighth round of negotiations, which began on Dec. 27 and are expected to conclude sometime in February.

Throughout the negotiations, Ulyanov said, Russia urged Iran to suspend any activities that breached the 2015 nuclear pact, while pressing the Americans to halt what he views as its “maximum pressure policy, or at least not to introduce new sanctions [during the negotiations].”

“To my mind, Russia plays the role of an honest broker,” Ulyanov said. “We don’t take sides. If we disagree with the Iranians we openly criticize them, either publicly or privately, but we can be critical if our Western colleagues are going to make a mistake.”

Mikhail Ulyanov arrives for closed-door Iran nuclear negotiatons in Vienna.
Mikhail Ulyanov arrives for closed-door Iran nuclear negotiatons in Vienna.

Ulyanov arrives for closed-door nuclear negotiations in Vienna on June 20, 2021. JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

The diplomat who is familiar with the negotiations believes that part of the reason Russia is being helpful on Iran is to demonstrate to the Biden administration that “if you mess with us too much on Ukraine you run the risk of us undermining this thing [the Iran negotiations] that you care about and find very important.”

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, believes the ultimate aim of Russian diplomacy over Iran is to secure the best deal possible for Tehran and to thereby weaken Washington’s influence in the region.

“Russia will do its best on the inside to dilute U.S. power,” he said.

Andrei Kozyrev, who served as Russia’s foreign minister during the 1990s, said there are a handful of areas where the United States and Russia have cooperated, are cooperating, and will continue to cooperate, the most important being nuclear nonproliferation and the preservation of the veto power in the United Nations Security Council—two issues that reinforce Russia’s status as a global superpower.

“Russia will do its best on the inside to dilute U.S. power,” said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Despite Russia’s previous intervention in Ukraine and its subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, it continued to work closely with the United States, Iran, and other key U.N. powers to broker the 2015 nuclear deal. And despite their differences over Ukraine, the United States and Russia recently signed on to a joint statement by the five permanent members of the Security Council.

“Generally speaking, things are going from bad to worse, and the confrontation will be there for the foreseeable future, until the Russian regime will have been changed,” Kozyrev said. “But as soon as things come to the problem of proliferation or nonproliferation of the nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States will be basically on the same side against it. But Russia will try to again put as much burden on the shoulders of the United States.”

Kozyrev said he believes Russia would be happy to see Iran’s nuclear program eliminated, as long as the blame falls squarely on Israel and the United States.

“I don’t think there would be any tears if either Israel or the U.S. attacks Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state. … They will beat up on Israel and the U.S. for the unilateral use of force. I think they are generally interested in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. If you look at a map, Iran is much closer to Russia than the U.S.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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