VIENNA — Fears mounted Monday that the Iran nuclear deal may become collateral damage in the Ukraine war as Russia pressed its demand to be exempted from U.S. sanctions in any future business dealings with Iran.
The talks have been focused on how to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA as the deal is known, by rolling back sanctions imposed by the United States after it pulled out of the agreement in 2018 and the advances later made by Iran in its nuclear program in response to the U.S. sanctions.
The eruption of war in Ukraine has thrown up additional complications by overturning Russia’s relations with the Western nations involved in the negotiations, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, along with Iran and China. Because the United States withdrew from the agreement, the talks at the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna have been taking place among the remaining parties, with negotiators shuttling between the talks and the U.S. delegation at a different hotel.
In a phone call with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that Russia wants the revival of the nuclear deal to be accompanied by U.S. guarantees that sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won’t apply to Russian trade or investment with Iran.
Lavrov told Amirabdollahian that the deal’s resuscitation “should ensure that all its participants have equal rights regarding the unhindered development of cooperation in all areas,” the Russian Embassy in Iran said on Twitter.
The demand, first raised by Lavrov at a news conference in Moscow on Saturday, has rocked the negotiations underway in Vienna.
This was the first time Russia had given any indication that its position might have shifted, and diplomats are now scrambling to assess what the new demands mean and how they might affect the chances of getting a revived deal. Iran seemed as stunned as any of the other countries, with Iranian officials complaining to Iranian media that they only learned of the Russian demand from news reports.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated in an interview Sunday that the United States would not be prepared to bargain over the sanctions imposed on Russia for the sake of the nuclear deal, saying the issues are unrelated.
“The sanctions that are being put in place and that have been put in place on Russia have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal and the prospects of getting back into that agreement,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “These things are totally different and are — just are not in any way linked together.”
Iran is still pushing for further concessions from the United States on issues related to economic guarantees and removing Iranian entities from the U.S. list of designated terrorists before agreeing to resume adherence to the deal, diplomats say. It is still possible the negotiations could collapse regardless of any shift in Russia’s position, a Western negotiator said.
But diplomats now have to contend with the possibility that Russia may try to upend the deal altogether or to use the talks as a bargaining chip to exact concessions from the West on sanctions related to Ukraine.
“There’s a real tension between Russia’s long-standing interest in containing the Iran nuclear program and this new Russia that seems willing to bring its relations with the West crashing down,” said Henry Rome, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Russia may also now have no interest in remaining in a revived deal that would benefit the United States and its Western allies but would potentially damage Russian interests by bringing oil prices down, said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Iran would be able to sell its oil on the open market again, which could ease tight global supplies and bring prices down by as much as 10 percent.
“Considering the magnitude of the global pressure against Russia, it’s understandable why they might try and hold the Iran nuclear deal hostage to secure their own interests,” he said. “Russia wants the world to feel the economic pain of an embargo against Russian oil. Helping to get Iranian oil back on the market would soften the global financial blow.”
Russia’s participation in the agreement isn’t essential, but the original JCPOA assigns Russia an important role in shipping out and storing Iran’s excess stocks of enriched uranium. The original deal is also backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution, which Russia could veto if it chooses to oppose the revived deal.
Those are issues that could be worked around, but that would be likely to put a further brake on a resolution of the talks, diplomats say. In the meantime, Iran is continuing to enrich uranium and inching closer to what is known as breakout point, meaning that it would have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon should it choose to do so. “Time is of the essence,” a senior Western diplomat said.