As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on and raises fears of nuclear escalation, negotiations in Vienna continue in a desperate bid to avert another nuclear crisis from erupting — in the Middle East.
After almost a year of talks, officials say that an agreement to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is close, but political issues continue to stand in the way, including controversy over the terrorist designation of an Iranian military branch and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“What has been going on for the last three months has been haggling over final details that don’t matter much economically, but have political significance,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Experts say that the technical details of an agreement to restore the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have largely been worked out. A restored JCPOA would see sanctions lifted for Iran, and the US reentering the deal from which it withdrew in 2018. Tehran, meanwhile, would agree to roll back significant advances it has made in its nuclear program since 2019 that have brought it close to being able to produce the fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon.
Despite the progress made over the past 11 months, the prospects for restoring the deal have repeatedly been called into question, with various issues at different points threatening to upend negotiations.
Russian Demands Get in the Way
Earlier this month, Russia became the latest problem. As the West levied severe sanctions against Moscow in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demanded guarantees that its trade, investment, and military-technology cooperation with Iran would not be hindered under a restored nuclear deal.
“That in itself was significant, because the Russians over the last few weeks had made sure to say that these two issues — what’s going on in Ukraine and the nuclear talks — are not linked,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “Here was Sergey Lavrov linking the two issues.”
“It all really looked like it had come to a huge halt, even though it looked like almost everything else was falling into place,” said Fitzpatrick.
The demands brought a halt to negotiations and prompted immediate backlash from Western governments. Even Iran appeared to be surprised, stating publicly that it would not allow “foreign factors to impact our national interests.”
“The Iranians didn’t call it blackmail, but they saw it as something that was not good development,” said Vatanka. “From their perspective, they were going to be taken hostage by the Russians.”
Within days, however, Russia backed down from its demands following a visit to Moscow by Iran’s foreign minister and what Lavrov said were assurances from Washington.
Speaking during a press conference on March 15, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price reiterated Washington’s statements that sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine were unrelated to restoring the JCPOA.
“We, of course, would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA,” Price said. “We can’t and we won’t, and we have not provided assurances beyond that to Russia.”
Tensions Between Iran and Russia
Though seemingly shelved — at least temporarily — the incident put Iran in a difficult situation and shed light on a number of key issues, experts say.
One is the not-so-harmonious nature of the relationship between Iran and Russia. Despite an outward image of positive ties between the two countries, Tehran remains skeptical and not entirely trusting of Moscow.
“The Iranians are not loyal to the Russians by any means; they don’t see the Russians as being loyal to them either,” said Mark Katz, a nonresident senior fellow at the DC-based think tank Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. “Their ties have been getting closer, but Iranians really don’t trust the Russians. They had a long negative history with Russia, much longer than they’ve had with the US. This is just another example for Iranians of Russia putting its own interests ahead of Iran’s.”
For a moment, Russia’s demands presented Iran with two challenging options.
The first was for Iran to move forward with an agreement without Russian participation, which would require closer cooperation with Western governments — including the possibility of talking directly with Washington rather than through intermediaries, as has been the case.
“An Iran that puts its national interest first, acts rationally, and focuses on what the people of Iran right now care about more than anything else would want a nuclear deal as soon as possible.” — Alex Vatanka, Middle East Institute
“Whether you actually have a ceremony with the Russians or the president signs that dotted line doesn’t really matter,” said Vatanka. “The future of JCPOA is not about the lifting of Russian sanctions on Iran. There are no Russian sanctions on Iran. It’s about American sanctions on Iran, and Iran and the United States can deal with that directly, more or less.”
The other option for Iran was to abandon the deal and stick with Russia at the expense of its economy, which has suffered heavily under US sanctions.
The Future of Iran Depends on Its Loyalties
Such a scenario highlights the internal debate among Iranian leadership over the future direction of the country, said Vatanka, who also noted that some of the technical responsibilities undertaken by Russia in accordance with the JCPOA, such as storing excess amounts of enriched uranium, could be taken over by another country, like Kazakhstan.
“An Iran that puts its national interest first, acts rationally, and focuses on what the people of Iran right now care about more than anything else, would want a nuclear deal as soon as possible,” said Vatanka. “That Iran should want to talk to the Americans directly. That Iran needs to make a decision: whether it wants to basically be a servant of the Russians and the Chinese or [to be] a country of 85 million people that can afford to have a balanced foreign policy. These are decisions that only senior Iranian policy makers can make, and time will show which way it chooses to go.”
While Iran has since sided with Russia and sought to blame the US for holding up an agreement, Vatanka noted that restoring the country’s economy is among Tehran’s top priorities.
“Russia is already cut off from the banking sector,” he said. “It doesn’t have much money and presumably much appetite to invest in Iran. So how is Russia actually going to support the Iranian economy? The Iranians don’t need Russian support, running around supporting the likes of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad or the Houthis in Yemen; they can do that on their own. They need somebody to fix their economy. And that’s where the Russians just really don’t have much to offer.”
Russia Wants a Seat at the Table
Despite the apparent challenge Russia’s demands presented to the negotiations, experts say that a nuclear Iran, or a nuclear deal without Russia’s involvement, is not in Moscow’s interests.
“One of [Russia’s] great fears is not so much a nuclear Iran as [it is] Iran cooperating with the US,” said Katz. “Part of the reason why they participated in the JCPOA negotiations was that they were pretty sure that Iran wanted to proceed … and was going to whether Russia liked it or not, and therefore it would be better to be in than not in.”
It is unclear to experts why exactly Russia relaxed on its demands.
“It seemed to have made an internal mistake, that maybe Lavrov got it wrong,” Fitzpatrick said about Russia. “This back-and-forth on Moscow’s demands and what appears to have been a mistake is consistent with the miscalculations in Russia’s Ukraine policy for the last month.”
Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Russia’s initial demands were part of a deliberate strategy to protect what trade and financial relations it can amid heavy international economic pressure.
“There’s a huge risk that Russia could be looking to use Iran for a sanctions-evasion hub,” said Stricker.
It could be possible for Russian banks, companies, and individuals to circumvent Ukraine-related sanctions by engaging in trade with Iranian counterparts who are protected from sanctions under a restored JCPOA, Stricker explained. “Then it would not be possible for the United States to levy secondary sanctions against those Iranian entities.”
Stricker also noted that Russia has lucrative financial interests in a restored JCPOA, with nuclear development projects worth billions of dollars.
The frenzy caused by Lavrov’s demands also highlighted the significant role Russia has played in negotiations. With Iran unwilling to speak with the US directly, Russia has been pivotal in acting as an intermediary.
Though resolved for now, the continuation of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the tensions it is causing with the West means that the issue could again arise, experts say.
“What the Russians have done is an indication of how vulnerable Iran is to mood swings in Moscow,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a DC-based research institution and think tank. “And if they wait too long, perhaps Moscow will have another mood swing, and as a result, once again jeopardize the opportunity for the JCPOA to be struck.”
Iran’s “Terrorist” Problem
With Russian demands seemingly resolved, the latest issue to reportedly arise is over Washington’s terrorist designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful armed wing within Iran that operates seperately but in parallel with the official military. The IRGC also holds significant political sway.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Tehran is demanding the the US lift the foreign terrorist organization label on the IRGC, something Washington is reluctant to do.
Still, after months of negotiations and effort, Fitzpatrick believes that Iran and the US will eventually reach an agreement over the IRGC.
The IRGC maintains ties with, and provides support for, forces across the Middle East such as the paramilitary political party Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, both of which are staunch enemies of US partners and allies in the region. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the IRGC allegedly supplied roadside bombs to Shia militants to use against American troops.
Roughly a year after withdrawing from the JCPOA, then-President Donald Trump designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization, making it the first state security agency to receive such a label. Several months later, the US killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military general and leader of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, which handles relations with foreign Iran-backed forces.
The assassination shocked the world and brought Tehran and Washington to the brink of war, with Iran launching ballistic missiles at an Iraqi military base housing US troops. Though no American troops were killed, the attack left more than a hundred with brain injuries.
A number of former guardsmen also hold key political positions, giving the IRGC even further domestic power and influence. (Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in decision making, led the Guard during the country’s brutal war with Iraq in the 1980s.)
In addition to significant military and political power, the IRGC also holds substantial economic might. Its involvement in a number of sectors, including banking, infrastructure, and oil, allows it to reap vast sums of revenue that are used to finance its operations and Iran’s nuclear program, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Tehran’s demand that the terrorist desgination on the IRGC be lifted has prompted fierce backlash from critics from Jerusalem to Washington, especially following another recent ballistic missile attack by the Guard against an alleged Israeli target in northern Iraq.
“It has undertaken terrorist activity, it supports proxies in the region that carry out terrorist attacks, and those proxies and Iran are launching attacks at our partners and near one of our consulates in the region,” said Stricker.
But Stricker thinks the White House will push forward no matter what.
“The administration is almost dogmatically committed to it, despite all of the contradictions that are now obvious with having Russia negotiating it, and the fact that it rewards Iranian terrorism, essentially, and facilitates additional aggressive behavior.”
Leaving a Sour Taste
After months of negotiations and effort, Fitzpatrick also believes that Iran and the US will eventually reach an agreement over the IRGC.
“But the longer it lingers, the more of a sour taste it leaves in the mouths of the negotiators, and the less likelihood there is that they would have any kind of follow on talks of other issues of concern,” he said.
Tehran’s nuclear program is just one source of tension with the West and its allies. Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis have also been highly problematic. Trump cited those issues and the lack of attention given to them by the JCPOA as part of the reason for his decision to withdraw from the agreement. Nearly four years on, they remain contentious issues that critics of the JCPOA argue must be accounted for in any revised deal.
Supporters of the JCPOA argue that the most pressing goal is preventing a nuclear Iran and that all other issues are best handled apart from a nuclear agreement.
“Dealing with those other issues would have been problematic under any circumstances,” said Fitzpatrick. “That’s why they haven’t been dealt with yet. That’s why they were kept out of the nuclear deal.”
Separate talks on such issues, Fitzpatrick said, would likely involve Russia, a prospect that is now called into question given the conflict in Europe.
“The Ukraine invasion makes it all the more difficult to see how there would be successful talks on these other issues, because Iran would want Russia to be involved in any of those talks,” Fitzpatrick continued. “Russia would want to be involved, but its position now as an international pariah makes other states not so eager to have Russia involved.”
Republicans Register Their Complaints
With such issues still unresolved and skepticism over the terms of the JCPOA still lingering, US President Joe Biden’s efforts to restore the JCPOA has evoked backlash from Republicans on Capitol Hill to partners in the Middle East.
Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with leaders from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, discussing their concerns related to the US lifting its terrorist designation of the IRGC. In a statement, Bennett and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said, “We believe the [US] will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists.”
Last week, 49 Senate Republicans came out publicly against the deal and vowed to take whatever steps necessary to block its implementation.
“A deal that provides $90-$130 billion in sanctions relief, relieves sanctions against Iran’s worst terror and human rights offenders, and delists the IRGC does not support our national security interest,” US Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Worse, this deal could enable Putin to continue to build out his nuclear arsenal and benefit financially in the midst of his assault against Ukraine. The administration should walk away.”
Coupled with the inability of the US administration to offer guarantees that a future administration won’t pull out of the deal as Trump did, such opposition has strengthened a belief in Iran that even if an agreement is reached, it will only last for a short period of time, said Parsi. As such, Iran will seek to develop its economy to withstand what it believes will be the inevitable future return of sanctions.
“It is possible the Republicans will pull back out of the agreement,” said Stricker. “I think that’s exactly why the Iranians will try to pocket what they can now and prepare for another US pull-out of the deal.”
Unrest Threatens Cooperation
Despite such beliefs and the challenges currently at hand, many experts remain confident that the US and Iran will resolve differences and ultimately reach an agreement.
But as the conflict in Ukraine rages and tensions worsen between parties to the deal, which also includes China, Britain, France, and Germany, Tehran may feel that it won’t have to be subjected to the same degree of restrictions as originally imposed by the JCPOA, Parsi said.
“That’s not to say that they’re just going to go ahead and build a nuclear program without any restrictions,” Parsi said. “It’s rather to say that the bargaining cards and position of the West is getting weaker.”
And as the war in Ukraine rages on, the degree of cooperation established between parties when the deal was first reached in 2015 is increasingly threatened, Parsi noted.
“That unity is pretty much out the window, and it’s going to be further fractured if the conflict in Ukraine goes on for too long,” Parsi said.