Only a few days ago, a watershed moment in the 11-month talks on Iran’s nuclear programme was said to be edging closer as the negotiating teams were putting the final touches to a new deal that would allow the crippling economic sanctions on Iran to be lifted.
News reports quoting negotiators in the Vienna talks grabbed the headlines by saying that a deal on reviving the accord between Tehran and the world powers could come soon.
Tehran also said on Saturday that it had agreed to a roadmap with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to resolve outstanding issues that could help secure the nuclear pact.
The 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US, together with Iran, and granted the latter sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
The deal was left on life support when former US president Donald Trump pulled out of it in 2018 and re-imposed heavy economic sanctions on Tehran, prompting Iran to start ramping up its nuclear activities.
After his inauguration in 2021, US President Joe Biden decided the US would return to the deal if Iran came back into compliance. But Washington has only participated indirectly in the Vienna talks because Tehran has declined to talk directly to it.
Now escalating tension between the US and its Western allies with Russia over Ukraine is casting a heavy shadow over the talks in Vienna amid signs that Iran is hardening its position in the negotiations.
However, fears that nuclear plants in Ukraine could be affected by the Russian onslaught have underlined the need for a settlement with Tehran. Ukraine has 15 nuclear sites, and Russia’s attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant highlighted the possible dangers of radioactivity.
Fears about Iran’s nuclear programme also resurfaced following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he has put his country’s nuclear forces on heightened alert, citing “aggressive statements” by NATO leaders on Ukraine.
The wave of optimism about a possible agreement with Tehran came as negotiators resumed the talks last week after world leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said an agreement might be in sight.
The reports had also suggested that Iran’s leaders hoped to sign a new agreement ahead of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, on 20 March, to give their people who are suffering from the devastating sanctions, further reasons for celebration.
A draft agreement between Iran and the world powers reported by Reuters said it would involve a phased return to the 2015 nuclear deal, with both sides initially taking interim steps to curb enrichment and lift some sanctions.
The draft reportedly outlined a series of steps for all the parties to take following its final approval, starting with Iran suspending the enrichment of uranium above five per cent. In exchange, the US will unfreeze some $7 billion in Iranian funds stuck in South Korean banks under sanctions.
Other terms include the release of Western prisoners held in Iran and Tehran’s return at a later stage to core nuclear limits like a 3.67 per cent cap on enrichment purity. The sanctions will begin to be relieved, beginning with those against Iran’s oil sector.
But optimism about a breakthrough began to fade away as the conflict in Ukraine began to get worse and Tehran hardened its position seeking to take advantage of the global tension.
Tehran has started talking about a new roadmap it has reached with the UN nuclear watchdog to resolve outstanding questions about its nuclear programme by late June, a timetable aimed to put deadlines pressure on the negotiation in Vienna.
The new announcement came after a visit to Tehran on Saturday by IAEA head Rafael Grossi, who held talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami on Saturday.
Before returning to Vienna, Grossi said that “there are still matters that need to be addressed by Iran.” He was referring to answers sought by the IAEA from Iran on uranium traces, a topic often referred to as “outstanding safeguards issues”.
“It would be difficult to imagine that such an important return to such a comprehensive agreement as the JCPOA would be possible if the agency and Iran would not see eye-to-eye on how to resolve these important safeguards issues,” Grossi said.
The hiccup in the nuclear negotiations came following a Reuters report that Russia is demanding written US guarantees that Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine will not damage its cooperation with Iran in any agreement to revive the 2015 deal.
The Islamic Republic’s official news agency IRNA dismissed the report about the Russian demands as “incorrect” and “false,” however, and denied that any Iranian official had been in contact with Reuters.
Yet, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “limitations” had become a stumbling block for the Iran nuclear deal, warning the West that Russian national interests would have to be taken into account.
Lavrov said the sanctions on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine had created a “problem” from Moscow’s perspective. Moscow was given special status in implementing the JCPOA, and it is already involved in Tehran’s civilian nuclear programme as well as arms sales to Iran.
Both Iran and Russia are trying to take advantage of the turbulence in Ukraine to influence the nuclear talks in Vienna, which the US and its Western allies had hoped to be wrapped up by the end of February.
While Russia’s threat may just be part of its brinkmanship in the Ukraine crisis, deepening its fallout, Iran’s delaying tactics are clearly an attempt to push for a better deal in the Vienna talks.
With hopes for a quick deal in Vienna dampened and the war in Ukraine pushing Russia into deeper isolation, Iran is caught between a rock and hard place.
Counting on the conflict in Europe to lengthen the list of woes in the western camp, especially energy shortages and soaring prices, Iran is trying to press for more concessions from the US in the potential nuclear deal.
Yet, assessing the conflict in Ukraine from different vantage points in terms of Iran’s interests shows that the stakes will be high if Tehran bets on exploiting the collapse of relations between the US and Russia for a better bargain.
Iran could sign a deal now and have most of the sanctions lifted to benefit from the sky-rocketing oil prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or it could decline an agreement and remain under an embargo.
The war in Ukraine has also alerted the world to the nuclear danger and raised the spectre of a nuclear conflict, both of which will embolden the US and its allies in the future if the Vienna talks collapse.
Clearly, Iran has geopolitical interests to weigh in view of a wide array of domestic and foreign factors at work, and it could be hard to predict its course of action before it sees what changes the Ukraine crisis produces.
The choice for Iran is a dramatic one. In Tehran’s current worldview, backing down or making concessions would be a huge gamble, balancing the pros and cons against an unknown future.
With dramatic changes expected in the global geopolitical landscape after the Ukraine crisis, the US and its European allies, meanwhile, may also find a new nuclear deal with Iran not worthwhile on Tehran’s terms, and they may prefer to walk away if there is no agreement soon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.