Ukraine conflict complicates final phase of Iran nuclear talks

Iran's political attache at the permanent mission to the Vienna-based international organizations. The UN nuclear watchdog on March 6, 2022 expressed "deep concern" over reports that communication from Europe's largest nuclear power plant seized by Russia in Ukraine has been disrupted.(Photo: AFP)
With the world riveted on the ghastly Russian invasion of Ukraine, the negotiators trying to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have been working away in Vienna. Reports over the past two weeks indicate that the final issues are quietly being resolved. Iran’s team has flown back and forth to Tehran to get guidance and to brief the politicians on the technical issues, and the US is signaling cautious optimism that they are in the final phase.اضافة اعلان

Reinstating the agreement would extend the timeline of a potential Iranian rush to make an atomic bomb to six to 12 months. As it stands, the demise of the original deal means Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in just three months, having accumulated stocks of the material and impeded inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Most likely the outcome will be a return to the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, not more, not less. That means the original calendar with its various timelines would remain in place; restrictions on various Iranian activities would expire at staggered deadlines, from 10 to 25 years from the original implementation. That may disappoint some who hoped for a “longer, stronger” deal that would add new provisions and extend the timelines. For others, the erosion of the constraints on Iran caused by president Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 has put priority on simply restoring the 2015 agreement, despite its shortcomings. Even some of those who lobbied against the deal in 2015 concede that it provided more security by slowing down Iran’s activities, and that Trump’s bluster that “maximum pressure” would somehow produce better results, proved to be a failure.

But the war in Ukraine could affect the diplomacy in several ways. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that Russia wants to see what accommodations can be made on the new sanctions imposed on Moscow, so that Russia and Iran can resume trade and military-technical cooperation that would again be permitted under the restored agreement. Other parties to the Iran talks resist linking the two issues, and expect Russia to support the diplomatic process on its own terms, not as leverage to lessen the impact of the Ukraine sanctions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted on Sunday that the sanctions on Russia “have nothing to do with the Iran deal”. 

Iran could be motivated to complete the process because it would be able to resume its oil trade, currently sanctioned because Iran stopped complying with its obligations under the nuclear deal. Iran might see political as well as economic benefit in filling some of the gap in the global oil market caused by the new sanctions on Russia. It would be an important sign of Iran’s return to normality as a trading partner and energy provider, even while it is still subjected to limits on its nuclear activities. But such changes would not have immediate effect. It would take some time for Iran to roll back its stocks of enriched uranium, by transferring them to Russia or other partners. Expanding its oil production by one million barrels a day would also take several months, according to energy experts.

A third effect from the Russian war on Ukraine is the role of Israel. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to position Israel as a mediator or at least an interlocutor, given its strong ties with all the affected parties. His recent visit to Moscow was coordinated with Washington, and Israel may see the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to burnish its credentials as a middle power with diplomatic clout. Israel’s political leaders remain highly critical of the Iran deal, insisting that it is not tough enough, but many of the country’s respected former national security officials have made it clear that Israeli security was better served with the agreement in effect, and regret the aggressive way Israel lobbied Washington under Trump to pull out of the deal. Bennett’s bark may be worse than his bite: he will continue to speak against the deal, but in ways that signal that Israel will accept the outcome of the process. 

It is still unclear if domestic politics in Washington or, to a lesser degree, in Tehran, will present further obstacles to the restoration of the agreement. President Barack Obama managed to keep Congress from blocking the agreement through a complicated consultation mechanism. Some members of Congress may call for a new congressional review, but most experts believe that, in the absence of any new features, the deal would not trigger the same process as in 2015, and that, in any case, it would be difficult to block its implementation.

Iran’s new leaders, who took office last summer, do not seem concerned about a demand for a formal approval process in their Majles. In 2015, the rulers were able to orchestrate a cursory parliamentary debate, with no risk of an unfavorable outcome.

The possible return to the JCPOA would be a positive step for international and regional security. On Sunday, the IAEA and Iran announced progress on restoring cooperation. Gulf Arab countries, which objected to the JCPOA for not addressing other problems with Iran’s regional positions, are also open to dialogue with Tehran over issues of deep disagreement. These gradual steps are welcome news at a time when the norms of international security are under such acute stress.

The writer is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice chair of the US’ National Intelligence Council. ©: Syndication Bureau,

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