Talks on the revival of the Iran nuclear deal have become a casualty of the war in Ukraine after an indefinite pause was announced over last-minute Russian demands.
An agreement on the nuclear deal to bring the US and Iran back into compliance would have led to a swathe of US sanctions on Iran being lifted, including Iranian crude oil exports and petrochemicals, in return for limits on Tehran’s nuclear activity.
In the past week, however, Moscow has insisted Washington pledge not to impose sanctions on any trade between Russia and Iran once an agreement is signed.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has called for guarantees that if the nuclear deal is restored, western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine will “not in any way damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation” with Iran.
Moscow, keen to keep oil prices high and maintain Europe’s dependency on Russian energy, is also not eager to see additional oil supplies flood the market. Iran exported nearly 2m barrels a day in 2016, the year after the original deal was made, and in practice has been exporting illicitly to China for months. US oil sanctions were reimposed on Iran in 2018 when Donald Trump pulled out of the deal.
The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted on Friday: “A pause in the Vienna talks is needed due to external factors. A final text is essentially ready and on the table.”
The Russian chief negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, denied it had only been Russian objections that led to the near-complete text not being signed off, and tried to suggest other countries still had problems with it. He told reporters he didn’t know how long the break in talks would be and that he did not believe there was any impasse.
“The only thing which I want to tell you … [is that] the conclusion of the deal does not depend on Russia only,” he said.
Russia has been a key broker of the painstaking talks in Vienna, which have lasted for almost a year. If the impasse is prolonged there is likely to be a debate over whether Moscow can absolutely use its UN veto on the agreement known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA).
Washington underlined that it had no intention of accommodating Russia’s demands for an exemption, which it has said have nothing to do with the Iran talks. A small number of outstanding and difficult issues were still yet to be resolved for a deal to be reached, it said.
Iran’s official spokesman did criticise the Russian intervention, but the unexpected impasse opens up the prospect that no agreement will be reached until the Ukraine war is resolved.
The west had said it is imperative an deal is reached quickly because the value of reviving it would be badly eroded if it is delayed and Iran continues to gain nuclear expertise.
Henry Rome, an Iran expert at Eurasia Group, said Russia’s support may not be indispensable for a deal, depending on how Russia prosecute its demands.
“Russia’s most important role in JCPOA implementation would be as the importer of Iran’s excess enriched uranium stockpile, which would be transported to Russia via ship and exchanged for natural uranium,” he said. “It is possible another importer could be found, however, such as the low-enriched uranium fuel bank in Kazakhstan.
“Russia’s other roles are notable but are not prerequisites to implementing the agreement, including providing fuel to the Bushehr power reactor and the Tehran research reactor and assisting Iran in converting the Fordow site for stable isotope production.”