Russia’s ‘Eleventh-Hour’ Interference in the Iran Deal

Moscow is seeking to use the Iran deal to shield itself from the full effect of Western sanctions.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, prior to their meeting in Moscow on Oct. 6, 2021. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For several weeks, Russian officials have insisted that the crisis in Ukraine would not impede big-power talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program.

“We are pragmatic,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s chief negotiator in the nuclear talks, told Foreign Policy in late December 2021, weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “In support of the Vienna talks, we never discuss Ukraine.”

But in recent days, Russia has put Ukraine at the center of the Iran talks, insisting that its trade with Tehran be exempt from the destructive Western sanctions imposed on Moscow in response for invading its neighbor. The eleventh-hour demand has served to unite the United States and Iran—which are both eager to see Iranian crude flow into a very tight global energy market—and set both countries scrambling to find a way around potential Russian obstruction.

For several weeks, Russian officials have insisted that the crisis in Ukraine would not impede big-power talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program.

“We are pragmatic,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s chief negotiator in the nuclear talks, told Foreign Policy in late December 2021, weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “In support of the Vienna talks, we never discuss Ukraine.”

But in recent days, Russia has put Ukraine at the center of the Iran talks, insisting that its trade with Tehran be exempt from the destructive Western sanctions imposed on Moscow in response for invading its neighbor. The eleventh-hour demand has served to unite the United States and Iran—which are both eager to see Iranian crude flow into a very tight global energy market—and set both countries scrambling to find a way around potential Russian obstruction.

Moscow wants a “written guarantee” that the sanctions do “not in any way damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation, and military-technical cooperation with the Islamic State,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday. Lavrov’s demand, which he reiterated in a discussion with his Iranian counterpart on Monday, comes as delegates have expressed growing confidence that an agreement by Iran and the United States to recommit to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is within reach. It has triggered pushback from Washington and Tehran, which have indicated that they intend to press ahead with the effort to strike a deal.

But the Russian gambit raises questions about whether Moscow can hold the talks hostage. The Russian delegation has no right to veto a deal that Washington and Tehran appear increasingly likely to strike, according to diplomatic sources, but Russia plays a vital role in guaranteeing the nuclear deal’s implementation. Moscow imports excess enriched uranium from Iran and helps downgrade Iranian enrichment facilities, ensuring they can’t be used to engage in nuclear weapons work.

If Russia decides to halt cooperation, the other key signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—China, France, Germany, Iran, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—would have to find another country to take Russia’s place, a process that could substantially delay any final agreement.

“It’s a significant problem,” said one diplomat from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the confidential Vienna negotiations, added: “We are looking for aways around it, but it’s complicated.”

The European signatories to the nuclear accord have appealed to Russia to back down and rejected a so-called non-paper Ulyanov circulated to them Tuesday that would have broadened Russia’s trade guarantees with Iran, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Iran is permitted to stockpile only 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent purity. Since former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran has stockpiled at least 10 times that amount, including uranium enriched from 20 percent to 60 percent purity. Those levels of enrichment are close to what’s needed for weapons-grade uranium.

Iran has the capability to “downblend” some of its highly enriched uranium into natural uranium and sell the remainder on the international market for natural uranium. The Iran nuclear accord also envisioned the possibility of Iran selling its excess uranium to an International Atomic Energy Agency fuel bank that became operational in Kazakhstan in 2019, though it remains unclear whether any such arrangements are in the works.

Ali Shamkhani, a top official on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, posted a tweet saying while it is understandable that participants in the negotiations act out of self-interest, Iran is “solely driven by our people’s interests. Thus, we’re assessing new elements that bear on the negotiations and will accordingly seek creative ways to expedite a solution.”

The Biden administration is hoping that Iran’s return to the global oil market—it has untapped oil production capacity, lots of oil in storage, and the ability to export up to a million additional barrels or more a day—would help offset the cost of sanctioning oil exports from Russia, which pumps about 1 of every 10 barrels of oil consumed around the world.

The move comes as global oil prices have spiked to around $113 per barrel, driving gas prices in the United States to more than $4 a gallon, threatening to act as a brake on economic growth, and posing a potential political challenge for the Democratic Party in the U.S. midterm elections. The United States has also been in talks with Venezuela, which has been sanctioned since 2019, about resuming crude exports to the United States.

“The United States is targeting the main artery of Russia’s economy,” U.S. President Joe Biden said when announcing a U.S. ban on Russian oil imports. “We will not be part of subsidizing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war.” (The U.S. ban will affect only a fraction of Russia’s global oil exports.)

The landmark 2015 nuclear pact offered extensive sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for verifiable assurances that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The arrangement sharply limited Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and restricted the number of early-generation centrifuges it could use to enrich it. That gave U.S. policymakers confidence that it would take Iran at least 12 months to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb if it decided to break away from the agreement and race for a nuclear weapon.

After Trump withdrew the United States from the accord and unshackled Iran from its commitments, experts said the country’s nuclear breakout time was reduced to around six months, though it is unclear how long it would take Iran to develop a warhead capable of delivering a nuclear payload. Iran, meanwhile, has developed a new generation of more advanced centrifuges in violation of the original nuclear pact.

Early in his term, Biden made the restoration of the nuclear deal a top foreign-policy priority, opening indirect talks with Iran to bring both countries back into compliance with the deal. The two sides were reportedly closing in on a deal when Lavrov introduced his latest demand.

The nuclear deal is “almost done, but there is a hold up with the Russians and how you manage Russian trade commitments to Iran under the JCPOA,” said one senior European diplomat. “With the sanctions that have just been put on Russia more generally and including oil and gas, I think that all needs to be worked out. But as far as the U.S.-Iran parts go, thats almost nailed down. So its very much the last few days.”

Russia has long been an enthusiastic champion of the Iran nuclear deal, which offers extensive sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for verifiable assurances that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Russia’s Vienna envoy, Ulyanov, has served as a chief optimist and booster, advocating the need to seal the deal in prodigious Twitter posts.

Ulyanov declined a request for comment on Russia’s latest demands for sanctions relief. But he said he remains upbeat about the prospects of an agreement.

“I can only say that I have practically no doubts that the deal will be concluded,” he told Foreign Policy on Sunday in a direct message on Twitter. “But I observe mobilization of anti-JCPOA forces and propaganda both in the U.S. and Iran and in other circles. Some risks still exist.”

It remains uncertain whether Russia is prepared to try to kill the nuclear deal if its conditions are not met or if it is seeking to exact some final concessions.

The United States and other negotiators have always anticipated exempting Russia from sanctions to enable it to fulfill any obligations it undertakes to implement the deal.

But Lavrov’s remarks suggested he is seeking a sweeping trade exemption with Iran. In a CBS interview on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sanctions on Russia “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal and the prospects of getting back into that agreement.” He noted there are a “couple of very challenging remaining issues” unsettled.

The European diplomat said Russia’s demand underscores the need to find other states willing to take on the burden of accepting Iran’s excess fuel.

“Personally, I think we ought to take some country that we give a lot of aid to and build them a facility so they can process Iran’s spent fuel rather than sending it to Russia,” the diplomat said. “But that will take a bit of time.”

There are some potential benefits for Russia by holding the plan hostage.

It would deny Biden a key foreign-policy victory, keep the Americans bogged down in a major proliferation crisis in the Middle East, and reduce Washington’s bandwidth for maintaining pressure on Russia. It would also keep a million barrels of Iranian crude out of the global marketplace, keeping prices high for Russia, which is still a major energy exporter.

“It’s not 100 percent clear Russia wants to torpedo the restoration of the JCPOA,” said Ali Vaez, an expert on the nuclear talks with the International Crisis Group. “They may want to use it as leverage, to punch a hole in U.S. sanctions regime against Russia.”

Henry Rome, who has tracked the Iran negotiations with the Eurasia Group, believes “a deal is still more likely than not because all sides have come this far and most of the really sticky issues have been resolved and we are now at a place where the Iranians are on board.” But he added that “there will need to be a lot of creative diplomacy to try to make this work.”

Robert Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert at the Brookings Institution, said he doubts the Russians are seeking to “drive a big hole” through the United States sanctions on Russia, citing their own national interest in seeing the deal finalized.

“The funny thing about this Russian action is that it has managed to unite the United States and Iran,” he said. They were both “annoyed by this eleventh-hour curveball.”

Foreign Policy staff writer Jack Detsch contributed to this report.

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

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