Russian Glitch in Iran Talks

After 11 months of negotiations, Iran and the world’s major powers appeared close to terms on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. But Russia threw in a last-minute demand that U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine would not impede Russian trade with Iran. On March 11, the eighth round of talks paused. The E.U. coordinator cited unspecified “external factors.” The following is a timeline of what happened. 

March 5: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow asked for “a written guarantee” that U.S. and European sanctions will not “in any way damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with the Islamic Republic.”

March 6: The United States initially dismissed Lavrov’s remarks. The sanctions on Russia “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a televised interview. The demand is “irrelevant,” he added.

March 7: A French presidency official called on Russia to consider the importance of Iran coming back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “Because otherwise, in reality, it's just blackmail and not diplomacy,” the official said.

Iran, which has better relations with Russia, appeared to be caught off guard. “We’ve seen Mr. Lavrov's remarks in the media, and we’re waiting to hear the details through diplomatic channels,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said. But he also lauded Russia’s “constructive” role in the talks. “Iran's peaceful nuclear cooperation, including with Russia and China, must not be limited and impacted by any sanctions. In this context, we understand the remarks.”

Foreign Minister Lavrov told his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, that the restored JCPOA must ensure unhindered cooperation in all fields without discrimination.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that “new initiatives from all parties” were needed to swiftly reach a deal. “We’re assessing new elements that bear on the negotiations and will accordingly seek creative ways to expedite a solution.”

March 8: In a joint statement, Britain, France and Germany called on “all sides to make the decisions necessary to close this deal now, and on Russia not to add extraneous conditions to its conclusion.”

“Russia is trying to up the ante and broaden its demands,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And we are not playing 'Let's Make a Deal'.”

The Russian delegation in Vienna reportedly presented written demands to the E.U. delegation, including that Russian trade with Iran be exempt from sanctions, according to The Wall Street Journal.  

March 10: The United States has “no intention of offering Russia anything new or specific as it relates to these sanctions, nor is anything new required to successfully reach an agreement on a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters. He reiterated that the new Russia-related sanctions “are wholly unrelated to the JCPOA.”

March 11: The coordinator for the diplomacy, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, announced a pause in the eighth round of talks. He cited “external factors,” widely understood to be Russian demands, as the reason for the break. A “final text is essentially ready and on the table.”

Britain’s lead negotiator, Stephanie Al-Qaq, said that she was “deeply disappointed,” especially given that Iran and the United States had “worked hard to resolve final issues.” External factors “must be resolved in next few days or agreement likely to unravel,” she warned.  

Russia’s lead negotiator, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, downplayed the significance of the pause. “I’m not aware of any impasse,” he told an Iranian reporter. “The conclusion of the deal does not depend only on Russia.” The remaining issues “have no relation to Russia,” he said.  

March 12: Britain, France and Germany appeared to criticize Russia but stopped short of naming it in a statement. “Nobody should seek to exploit JCPOA negotiations to obtain assurances that are separate to the JCPOA,” they said on March 12. “This risks the collapse of the deal, depriving the Iranian people of sanctions lifting and the international community of the assurance needed on Iran’s nuclear programme.”

March 14: Tehran tried to deflect criticism away from Russia. “Downgrading what is happening in Vienna to one element – meaning Russia’s demand – is what the U.S. wants so everyone would forget its own responsibilities,” Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said. “No one must forget that the party responsible for the fact that we are still at the point of non-agreement is the U.S.”

Iran also put a positive spin on the situation. “Pause in #ViennaTalks could be a momentum for resolving any remaining issue and a final return,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Khatibzadeh tweeted. “No external factor will affect our joint will to go forward for a collective agreement.”

March 15: Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian traveled to Moscow to discuss the nuclear talks and the situation in Ukraine with Foreign Minister Lavrov. “There is no link between events in Ukraine and Vienna talks,” Amir-Abdollahian said at a joint press conference.

Lavrov said that Russia had received “written guarantees” on the issue of Western sanctions.  “They are included in the text of the agreement itself on the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program.”

 

Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, assembled this report.

 

Updated