Russia has been accused of trying to hijack the Iran nuclear deal as part of its wider battle with the West over Ukraine, after throwing a last-minute wrench into plans of an agreement to lift a series of US economic sanctions against Tehran.
After months of negotiations in Vienna, a revised deal was to be reached within days of the lifting of US sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear non-proliferation agreement.
But diplomatic efforts have been derailed by Russia’s unexpected demand for written guarantees that its economic trade with Iran will be exempt from US sanctions imposed on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke this weekend of “the avalanche of aggressive sanctions [on Russia] that the West has started to vomit,” and said, “This meant that Moscow first had to seek guarantees from the United States, demanding a clear answer that the new sanctions will not affect its rights under the nuclear deal.
“We have asked our American colleagues…to give us written assurances at the minimum Secretary of State level that the current [sanctions] The process launched by the United States will in no way impair our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.
In a sign of the bite of the imposition of sanctions, Aeroflot flights from Moscow to Iran were canceled on Sunday.
If Lavrov’s request is to demand that the United States exempt Russian-Iranian trade from sanctions, the West is almost certain to reject the request because it would open a huge hole in the sanctions regime. It would then be up to Moscow to veto the nuclear deal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Russia’s demands ‘irrelevant’, saying sanctions imposed after Ukraine invasion ‘have nothing to do with nuclear deal Iranian”.
They “just aren’t related to each other, so I think that’s irrelevant,” Blinken told CBS News.
The Vienna talks were for months an oasis of diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the West as they painstakingly crafted a compromise acceptable to both Iran and the United States. Russia’s chief negotiator at the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, has been a tireless broker but now risks having his job undone by Moscow’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine.
Iranian officials criticized Russia’s intervention, saying “the Russians put this demand on the table during the talks in Vienna two days ago. It is understood that by changing its position in [the] Talks in Vienna, Russia wants to secure its interests elsewhere. This approach is not constructive for [the] Vienna nuclear talks.
Russia also has a short-term strategic interest in sabotaging or postponing the deal. Iran produces more than 2 million barrels of oil a day, and if those supplies could reach the markets, the price spike would be slowed.
Russia, a major oil producer, wants to drive up the price of oil to turn the screws on Western economies but also to increase its own income.
Israel, a staunch opponent of a revived nuclear deal, will be the only major country to privately praise Russia’s actions.
Parties to the deal are Iran, E3 (France, Germany and UK), Russia and China. The United States is present in Vienna, but Iran will not negotiate directly with the American delegation.
Separately, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, was in Tehran over the weekend to try to reach an agreement on the future inspection regime. Grossi hoped to resolve disagreements over the IAEA’s request for access to four sites where suspicious nuclear activity allegedly took place.
Iran wants the IAEA to end these investigations, saying they are based on false Israeli intelligence. Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Association, also sought assurances that what Iran considers Israeli intelligence would not form the basis of future IAEA investigations of Iran.
The two sides have agreed to exchange documents by June, when the Iran deal is likely to come into force, but appear to have left questions over the inspection regime unresolved.
Meanwhile, the IAEA will continue an inspection regime in which its surveillance cameras will remain in place and the cameras’ memory cards kept under joint seal.