Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 began again in Vienna in April 2021, nearly three years after US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reinstated significant economic sanctions on Iran in May 2018. Tehran, in turn, began to violate the deal one year later in May 2019, stepping up its enrichment of uranium. Within this context, the new negotiations almost eked out a deal; that is until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The subsequent war and resulting sanctions on Moscow will adversely and directly affect the ongoing negotiations, potentially halting them indefinitely.
Since the outset of negotiations, talks have primarily focused on three main issues: the precise sanctions that the Biden administration will lift; the timeframe in which Tehran could step away from the deal; and how to handle an Iranian nuclear program that has continued to develop since the US left the deal in 2018 and that is now in violation of the previous deal, in part due to Iran’s enrichment of uranium up to 60%. In addition to these issues, it will be difficult to lengthen Iran’s potential breakout time considering the country’s use of advanced centrifuges. It also didn’t help that talks were more or less put on hold until Iran’s 18 June elections, at which point ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi became the country’s president, raising concerns among some diplomats that a hardline Iran would abandon negotiations and a revival of the deal.
Contrary to expectations, however, talks faced few obstacles and gained significant momentum. At the time, the Biden administration expressed its willingness to rejoin the deal and to remain committed to the 2015 agreement. With US diplomats engaging in indirect talks with Iran, all parties seemed eager to return to the JCPOA. Nonetheless, a rollback of Iranian nuclear activities especially amid their recent acceleration remained an open question and source of discord during the negotiations. Iran has also continued to seek assurances from the US regarding an easing of sanctions that were imposed as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
In February 2022, the US partially conceded to Iran’s requests, allowing some Russian, Chinese, and EU companies to do business with Iran in the civilian nuclear field. Here, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said that the US would not lift all sanctions, including those imposed on Iran’s ballistic missile programs and other military activities. Instead, this move can be seen as a way of facilitating negotiations in Vienna, but Iranian authorities still don’t think that this is enough as they want all sanctions to be lifted to relieve Iran’s economy. Moreover, Tehran demands an inherent guarantee that the US will not withdraw from the agreement as it did in 2018. This is critical in restoring trust between US and Iranian authorities. In comparison with other rounds of talks in Vienna, real progress has been made in February 2022 and a possible agreement seems likely, even despite disagreements over immediate and broader sanctions relief.
Even so, according to a March 2022 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Iran is now closer than ever to having enough highly enriched uranium-235 that, when further enriched, would be enough for a nuclear bomb.” The report indicates that the IAEA and its operations in Iran still play a critical role in contributing to a permanent compromise on the issue.
Just as it looked like an end was in sight, the war between Russia and Ukraine pulled the rug out from under the talks in Vienna. Here, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded that Russia’s trade with and investment in Iran would not be affected by the West’s sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. While Russia has made this request a condition for the continuation – and conclusion – of the talks, Western powers including the US find it unacceptable as it would allow Russia to evade sanctions by way of trading with Iran. Tehran is concerned that Moscow’s demands could torpedo the negotiations, but its criticism of the US reaction to the invasion may very well work to the same end. It is obvious that the Russia’s war in Ukraine has complicated negotiations in Vienna. If Iran’s official statements on the crisis are any indication, Tehran, one of Russia’s closest historical allies, does not seem very enthusiastic about reaching an agreement with the West. As of 20 March 2022, all other parties, notably the EU, continue to push for a deal despite the war in Ukraine.
However, regardless of Russia’s position, it is still up to Iran and the US to agree on the aforementioned issues, particularly Iran’s demand that the US guarantee its adherence to the deal. If Iran doesn’t let Russian demands harm the negotiations, it could reach a permanent solution to the problem. Indeed, in the case that sanctions are fully lifted, Tehran has much to gain, potentially becoming a significant trading partner and supplier of energy to Europe, both during and after the war in Ukraine. Thus, a final agreement in Vienna would not only bring much needed relief to Iran’s long-beleaguered economy but also reduce Europe’s lasting energy dependence on Russia. Such a scenario would also help the Biden administration to achieve its aim of reducing fuel prices during the conflict in Ukraine.
Esra Serim holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Sciences Po d’Aix in France. Her areas of interest include nuclear security, arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. She can be found on Twitter, @esraserimm.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author; they do not reflect the views of FeniksPolitik.