COMMENT: Nuclear deal cliffhanger

COMMENT: Nuclear deal cliffhanger
Any decisive move will need the Supreme Leader's approval. /
By bne IntelIiNews March 12, 2022

So where do the nuclear deal talks go from here?

Talks on reviving the 2015 deal, or JCPOA, were very likely nearing a successful conclusion prior to the late February invasion of Ukraine by Russia. However, March 11 saw the final phase of negotiations put on indefinite hold as Moscow, hit hard by the economic onslaught unleashed on the Kremlin in response to its decision to wage a brutal war, rather took the JCPOA hostage.

Russia has demanded JCPOA-linked written guarantees from Washington that sanctions will not affect its trade and investment with Iran.

The Iranians are not best pleased. The situation opens up the stunning prospect that Tehran could dump its growing strategic alliance with Moscow in favour of getting the nuclear agreement done. The temptation for a country that has been on the rocks economically for endless years must be huge. Right now, the world is searching high and low for available oil and gas that can replace Russian shipments and Iran sits on the fourth highest reserves of the former and the second highest reserves of the latter (or possibly the biggest reserves of gas, overtaking current number one Russia; the latest data, adding newly discovered giant resources, is not yet in).

An amended and relaunched nuclear deal would of course lift US sanctions—in return for Iranian compliance with verifiable measures aimed at ensuring the Islamic Republic’s nuclear development programme does not stray into military territory—and the oil and gas could flow. But stranding Moscow to land the deal would be a seismic move. It is difficult to imagine Iran would go that far. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, has very much given the move to strengthen relations with Russia his personal stamp of approval since Iran was driven into a bitter recession by the Donald Trump years.

Still, there is a lot of unhappiness with the Russians’ last-minute obstruction of the talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the JCPOA.

“We asked our American colleagues, since they run the show here, to give us guarantees, at least at the level of the Secretary of State, that the current process [of sanctions against Russia] launched by the United States will in no way infringe on our rights to a free and full-fledged trade, economic, investment, military-technical cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 5.

Lavrov’s comments were quickly backed up by longstanding Russian Ambassador to Tehran Levan Dzhagaryan who said Russia needed assurances that it was not going to be cut out of the nuclear deal benefits by the Iranian clerical leadership.

Not so simple

Moscow can argue that Tehran has a lot to be grateful to it for, given that since the US exited the JCPOA in May 2018 and hit Iran with massive sanctions, Russia has stood by Iran, insisting it remained a trustworthy JCPOA signatory, while at the same time building up economic relations. But things are not so simple. A downtrodden Iran was, frustratingly, made by Moscow to work hard to earn and seal trade gains, while the Russians have been striking very hard bargains on developing Iranian gas fields. There is indeed a growing discourse in Tehran that Iran should not throw in its lot with Moscow as “we cannot trust the Russians”.

Iran has a long history and a long memory. Many Iranians can recall at least two Russian invasions over the past 200 years along with the humiliating treaties of Golestan and Turkmenchay which saw Qajar-era Iran hand over modern-day Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Armenia and Georgia to Imperial Russia. That’s good enough evidence that the Russians would throw the Iranians to the wolves yet again, some will tell you.

“We have officially become hostages of Russia,” was the reaction of Mahmoud Sadeghi, a former Iranian parliamentarian and representative of reform circles, to Moscow’s JCPOA demands.

State-sponsored Iranian newspaper Jomhuri-e Eslami put things even more harshly: “Moscow decides for Tehran and tries to become its voice in the negotiations. Such misconceptions about the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian people could plunge Russians into an illusion, the same one that led Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, plunging him into the quagmire of devastating war.”

Limping progress

The suspicion is that for more than a decade, Kremlin policy has been to keep Iran weakened and dependent on Russian political and economic support. Sure, Moscow gave Iran a three-year temporary preferential trade deal with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). But it’s only led to limping progress. The bonanza from a reborn JCPOA would quickly place that in its shadow.

As things stand, EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted on March 11: “A pause in the Vienna talks is needed due to external factors. A final [JCPOA] text is essentially ready and on the table.”

The statement sounds tantalising and is clearly a dig at the Russian obstruction.

Russian chief negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, quickly moved to deny it had only been Russian objections that led to the near-complete text not being signed off. Ulyanov tried to suggest other countries still had problems with the details, saying: “The only thing which I want to tell you … [is that] the conclusion of the deal does not depend on Russia only.”

Henry Rome, an Iran expert at Eurasia Group, told the Guardian that Russia’s support may not be indispensable for a deal, depending on how Russia prosecute its demands.

“Russia’s most important role in JCPOA implementation would be as the importer of Iran’s excess enriched uranium stockpile, which would be transported to Russia via ship and exchanged for natural uranium,” he said. “It is possible another importer could be found, however, such as the low-enriched uranium fuel bank in Kazakhstan.

“Russia’s other roles are notable but are not prerequisites to implementing the agreement, including providing fuel to the Bushehr power reactor and the Tehran research reactor and assisting Iran in converting the Fordow site for stable isotope production.”

Thus, Iran has a decision to make. Throw Russia overboard and it can expect barely contained fury from Moscow. And possibly an attempt by Russia at the UN to use a veto on re-establishing the JCPOA. But there must be some sore temptation for Tehran to take charge of its own destiny here and display some pure self-interest.