Q: How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacted current negotiations?
A: After negotiations were resumed by the Biden administration, all original parties expressed interest in either continuing the original nuclear deal or drafting a new one. However, the Russian invasion has become one of the major contributing factors for stalled nuclear talks. Russian officials voiced concerns over the sanctions imposed on their country and their direct effect on their relationship with Iran. Given its role and abundance of responsibilities within the original agreement, Russia believed it could leverage its authority within the framework of the agreement to ensure the inclusion of a sanctions-related loophole.
On Tuesday, March 15, after meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollohian, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov spoke out regarding U.S. sanctions. Lavrov stated they “received written guarantees” that “are included in the text of the agreement itself on the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme.” Russia is arguing that any new energy relationship with Iran should be exempt from current U.S. sanctions, as the framework of the JCPOA enables such a relationship. The United States, and therefore the other signees, will not stop the expansion of a Russian-Iranian economic relationship by way of sanctions unless the economic relationship develops outside the parameters of the JCPOA.
Q: Did the United States respond to these demands by alleviating sanctions against Russia?
A: No. Inversely, the United States has increased sanctions against Russia.
Most recently, on March 24, Joe Biden announced that the U.S. is now sanctioning "more than 300 members of the Duma, oligarchs and Russian defense companies that fuel the Russian war machine."
Q: Prior to the invasion, were the talks productive?
A: Prior to Russia’s recent demands regarding exemptions from the U.S led sanctions imposed against them, a deal was close to being finalized. The negotiations have been going on for approximately a year. While Russia made vague demands about a month ago, it was not until the most recent series of explicit demands that have since derailed the deal. U.S. and European officials have reiterated the importance of timing, since the deal becomes less effective as Iran’s nuclear program inches closer to its breakout time.
Q: Beyond the Russian invasion, what additional factors are complicating talks?
A: The most recent demands made by Russia have not been the only obstacle; there are Iranian factors that have not been resolved yet. For example, there are issues regarding the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), more specifically the Quds Force, categorized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department. Iran declaring responsibility for a recent missile attack against Iraq in Erbil will possibly make the talks more complicated. From a diplomatic perspective, IRGS listed as an FTO and the Erbil attack could grid-lock the larger negotiations further.
Q: In light of these developments, is the likelihood of an agreement strong?
A: Even with recent setbacks, it is still likely that a deal will be struck. There has been much speculation regarding possible alternative options for both parties. However, the global financial system is too intertwined for Iran to benefit from an agreement with Russia that does not include the U.S. and other European powers.
Q: Who has to agree in order for the nuclear deal to be enacted?
A: As the deal is currently structured, all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany have their own domestic political channels that must approve of the deal first. After domestic review and approval, a UN Security resolution will either be drafted, or the existing one will be reaffirmed. There are other nations such as Saudi Arabia that have given consultation regarding the deal, yet their explicit approval is not necessary.
Q: What is the Iran Nuclear Deal at its core?
A: The Iran Nuclear Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was an agreement signed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China), Germany, and Iran. The European Union, as well as various Middle Eastern countries, were also involved. The goal of the agreement was to incentivize Iran through immense sanctions relief to dismantle their military nuclear capability, and implement certain regulations to prevent the development of a non-civilian nuclear program in Iran.
The deal’s main aim was to extend Iran’s nuclear breakout time—how long it would take a nuclear country to enrich uranium sufficient enough to weaponize—from 2-3 months to a year. This extension on Iran’s breakout time would enable the P5+1 to respond accordingly to any advancement in Iran’s nuclear program, decreasing the likelihood of strategic surprise. The increased breakout time would also allow for diplomatic channels to be pursued first in case Iran begins reorienting its civilian nuclear program towards military purposes. The agreement is enforced by the threat of enacting sanctions. If any P5 state suspects Iran has violated the agreement, the Security Council can vote on the implementation of sanctions. The imposing of sanctions in response to a potential violation is considered a “snapback” mechanism, which has become one of the main caveats Iran is trying to remove in current negotiations of a new deal.
Q: How is the international counterproliferation effort being affected by geopolitical developments and the return of great power politics?
A: Iran’s nuclear situation is currently one of the most pressing in the international community. If Iran can develop nuclear weapons without a potential deal, geopolitical dynamics worldwide will change. Moreover, an Iranian nuclear military capability may compel Saudi Arabia to develop a program of its own. If the P5+1 cannot reaffirm the JCPOA, Israel could possibly conduct a preemptive or preventive strike against Iran. The power balance of the Middle East will change irreparably if Iran develops a weaponized nuclear program, causing an unprecedented paradigm shift in Middle East politics.
The current counterproliferation effort, especially regarding Iran, has been impeded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, given the potential ramifications of nuclear-armed Iran, it is likely that all states involved will make necessary concessions in order to reaffirm the deal.