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Iran nuclear talks are halted after new Russian demands related to Ukraine

Negotiators called the break a ‘pause,’ not a rupture, but there are fears that Russia might have succeeded in sabotaging the effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced the decision to “pause” the talks in a tweet. (Stephanie Lecocq/AP)
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Negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal were called off indefinitely Tuesday after a last-minute demand by Russia upended what diplomats had hoped was the final stretch of the talks.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell announced the decision to “pause” the talks in a tweet, citing “external factors” for the break. Negotiators for the seven countries involved have spent most of the past year huddled in Vienna trying to find ways to revive the 2015 nuclear deal after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the agreement in 2018.

Diplomats said Borrell was referring to Russia’s demand, first raised last Saturday, for U.S. sanctions relief to be applied to its future commercial dealings with Iran as a condition for participating in a revived deal.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to derail Iran nuclear talks

A final text for a new agreement is “essentially ready and on the table,” Borrell said, adding that he and his team would remain in contact with all the participants to overcome the remaining obstacles and finalize an agreement.

But the open-ended pause could also potentially signal a break from which there is no return, putting to rest any hope that restoring the deal will be possible.

“It’s certainly serious. If you lose momentum at this late stage the dynamics shift in ways that it could become impossible to resume the talks,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

A small number of outstanding differences still to be settled between Iran and the United States may also have contributed to the deadlock, diplomats said. They include how far the United States will go in removing terrorism designations from organizations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, guarantees regarding the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the details of a prisoner exchange, which could bring freedom for U.S. and other Western detainees held in Iranian jails.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price cited the complex nature of the final stages of a negotiation for the pause, adding that there are “external factors that are also interceding” in the effort to revive the Joint Coordinated Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the deal is known.

He said the United States is not prepared to offer Russia any concessions on sanctions for the sake of reviving the Iran deal, stressing that the new sanctions on Russia are “wholly and entirely unrelated to the JCPOA.”

Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s envoy to the talks, told reporters that the break could not solely be blamed on Russia. “There are others that need to settle their issues among themselves,” he said.

Iran was restrained in its comments after the pause was announced Friday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Twitter that he hoped the break would create “momentum” toward resolving the remaining issues. “The successful conclusion of talks will be the main focus of all,” he said.

Meanwhile, however, the clock is ticking on the patience of Western allies to hold out for an agreement while Iran continues to accelerate its nuclear program. Iran has now advanced its enrichment and stockpiles of uranium to the extent that it could now only be weeks away from the threshold required to build a nuclear weapon, and U.S. officials have warned that they will not allow the negotiations to drag on indefinitely.

U.S. officials have in the past raised the possibility of implementing a “Plan B” in the event the talks fail, without specifying what the plan would entail. The options raise from imposing even tougher sanctions to military action, potentially compounding the global instability triggered by the Ukraine war by adding a second war in the Middle East.

“We’re not in that hellscape yet. We are just stuck in purgatory,” said Batmanghelidj.

The talks in Vienna had been focused on laying out a timetable to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 deal. Under a new agreement, the United States would be expected to lift the harsh new sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew, and Iran would be required to dial back advances subsequently made in its nuclear program.

A deal was so close that a podium for the final ceremonies had been erected in the Palais Coburg hotel where the talks were held. In recent weeks Iran had increasingly signaled its willingness to finalize the arrangement, diplomats say.

But the outbreak of the Ukraine war has shifted the geopolitical backdrop to the negotiations, and it is now possible that the fate of the Iran deal will effectively become hostage to the course of the war, diplomats say.

The deal would herald a return to world markets of Iranian oil, potentially tempering the price hikes caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. sanctions on Russian oil. Russia has no interest in seeing the oil price come down and may also feel it can use the Iran deal as leverage in future negotiations over Ukraine, analysts say.

“Vladimir Putin understands that reviving the Iran nuclear deal means much more to Joe Biden than him. Putin does not feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear advancement and Tehran’s isolation has served Russian interest,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Iran had initially expressed irritation at Russia’s unexpected demand and continued to signal that a deal was near. But starting Wednesday, Iranian messaging switched, with officials turning their blame toward the United States.

A speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday suggested Iran was souring on going ahead with a new deal. He said it would be a “big error” to bow to pressure from the United States and other powers, adding that it would be unwise to give up Iran’s “advancement” in nuclear science. “Who can we turn to in a few years if we give it up now?” he said.

Comments by former vice president Mike Pence in an interview earlier this week with an Israeli newspaper that a future Republican administration would again withdraw from any revived deal also did not help, said a senior Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects.

Informal consultations are expected to continue, negotiators say, to include exploring ways to finalize the deal without Russia — something that would be complicated but not impossible. Russia is assigned a key role in the deal’s implementation as the country responsible for shipping out and storing Iran’s excess stocks of enriched uranium, for which another destination would have to be found.

But Tehran has also made it clear that Iran feels it can’t risk a public rift with Russia by turning its back on Russia’s concerns and aligning with the United States, according to a person familiar with the details of the talks, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects.

The talks, involving diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and China as well as Iran, the United States and Russia, have been intensive since the beginning of the year, and it will also be good for the negotiators to take a break, diplomats said. The Iranian and U.S. delegations gathered in separate hotels, with diplomats from the other nations shuttling between them because Iran refuses to engage in direct talks with the United States.

Enrique Mora, the European Union envoy charged with coordinating the talks, said that the negotiators need to take a pause to “maintain a good spirit.”