The Ukraine Crisis Could Sideline the Iran Nuclear Deal

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The Ukraine Crisis Could Sideline the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran has officially supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but new complications in talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal signal differences between Moscow and Tehran.

Have new conditions from Moscow disrupted the Iran nuclear talks? Are there any signs of a rift between Iran and Russia?

The reason the talks have stalled is not entirely clear. Top negotiators from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) indicated that the primary obstacle is Russia’s demand that its trade with Iran not be subject to the new sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. However, Iranian officials are insisting that the cause of the delay is the United States’ unwillingness to lift sanctions. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, tweeted on March 10 that the “prospect of a deal in Vienna talks remains unclear due to Washington’s delay in making [a] political decision.”

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It is possible that Russia is the main cause of the delay and that Iranian officials are unwilling to publicly blame it. Should this be the case, Iran is likely to eventually ignore Russia’s demands and reach a deal with the other parties to the Iran nuclear talks with the aim of easing sanctions and bringing in badly needed revenues. The Russian demands are not likely to prevent an accord, although they could delay one. Under the deal first brokered in 2015, Russia received excess enriched uranium from Iran and provided nuclear fuel to Iran’s Bushehr plant. That role was to be revived under a new nuclear deal.

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Now, the Iranian and Russian foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss the nuclear negotiations in Moscow on March 15.

Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi sit on two ends of a long, white table. Two men sit between them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, in Moscow. Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/Pool/Reuters

How has Iran responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

The invasion has crystallized the divisions within Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has categorically blamed the United States for Russia’s aggression. In a televised speech on March 1, Khamenei said: “By interfering in Ukraine’s affairs, creating color revolutions and toppling one government, and putting another in power, the U.S. dragged Ukraine into this situation.” Iran’s leading right-wing newspaper, Kayhan, recently editorialized, “Ukraine jumped into a well by trusting the rotten American rope.”

More moderate political actors who have been sidelined by the conservative consolidation of power have offered a different narrative. Former parliamentarian Ali Motahari wrote on Twitter after the invasion that “Iran must show its independence by condemning the attack on Ukraine by Russia.” For reformist-leaning Iranian politicians, Iran gains little by weaving conspiracy theories to sanction Russia’s invasion.

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What is the nature of Iran-Russia relations?

Their relationship has always been an alliance of convenience as opposed to one based on shared values. They cooperated in Syria’s war, but during the decade of nuclear negotiations, Russia supported Western sanctions on Iran and the various UN Security Council resolutions seeking to block Iran from developing nuclear arms. Russian officials routinely told their Iranian counterparts that they should not rely on Russia’s UN Security Council veto and that they should come to terms with the countries leading the talks—the so-called P5+1, a grouping that consists of the five permanent UN Security Council members (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and Germany. The fact is that Russia was one of the nations that benefited from sanctions on Iran, because they opened up additional markets for Russian oil.

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