The Impact of the Ukraine War on the Iranian Nuclear Deal

For almost two weeks, negotiations concerning the revival of the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) have been hindered by the war in Ukraine. By March 4 – after almost 11 months of talks – negotiations in Vienna between Iran and representatives of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany (the US is not directly taking part in the process) were making “significant progress”, although some issues remained unresolved. Two days later, however, Russia called for a stronger US commitment to the deal. In addition, the Russians demanded guarantees that sanctions related to the conflict in Ukraine do not affect trade between Moscow and Tehran. Russia’s last-minute call for a written guarantee on the part of the US brought the Vienna talks to a stalemate.

The JCPOA is a deal signed in July 2015 by Iran and the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”). Under the deal, Iran agreed to eliminate its reserves of enriched uranium, make substantial reductions in its reserves of depleted uranium, and cut the number of centrifuges (used to enrich uranium), by two-thirds. In exchange, Iran obtained the gradual lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations Security Council. In May 2018, however, the US administration led by Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the JCPOA.

During the Trump presidency, US sanctions against Iran were reinstated as part of a “maximum pressure” strategy ostensibly aimed at forcing the Tehran government to negotiate a new deal that would also curb its ballistic missile programme as well as its involvement in regional conflicts. US sanctions directly hit the Iranian economy and caused, among other things, the highest level of inflation in decade. In spite of the pain inflicted by the sanctions, however, Iran did not agree to make concessions. To the contrary, the Tehran regime started enriching uranium to levels higher than those permitted by the 2015 agreement. In April 2021, a few months after after inauguration, US president Joe Biden launched an effort to reboot the negotiation process and restore the framework of the Iran nuclear deal.

The negotiators of the JCPOA in July 2015. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In Iran, reactions to the invasion of Ukraine and to Russia’s new attitude concerning the JCPOA have been ambivalent, although the Iranian government has demonstrated a serious concern not to alienate Russia. Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Hossein Amirabdollahian, tweeted that the Ukraine crisis is “rooted in NATO’s provocations” but that Iran does not view war as a solution. “Establishing a ceasefire and focusing on a political and democratic solution,” according to Amirabdollahian, “is a necessity.” Moscow’s rigid demands during the Vienna negotiations, however, disappointed many Iranians. It appears that because of the conflict in Ukraine and rising tension with the West, the Russian government is no longer interested in achieving progress concerning the Iran nuclear deal. Iran is currently led by conservative figures – such as president Ebrahim Ra’isi. The Iranian parliament is also dominated by a conservative majority. According to Ra’isi and many other Iranian conservatives, the Ukraine crisis is largely America’s fault. In fact, in one of his tweets, Ra’isi has said that the government supports in full the negotiating position set by the Supreme Leader Rahbari, and “will not back down from its red lines in the Vienna nuclear talks.” Such a statement can be interpreted as an implicit acceptance of the Russian demands.

The Ukraine war has been criticized by many Iranian politicians. Critical voices in Teheran point out that the Russian position is a threat to the Iranian national interest and makes it more difficult to overcome the sanctions problem. Ali Motahari, a moderate conservative politician and former member of parliament has said that “in the last stage of reviving the Barjam [the JCPOA], Iran must put aside its fears and resolve the remaining problems through direct negotiations with the United States. Russia is deeply concerned about the resumption of JCPOA and the improvement of Iran’s economic relations with the West, and wants Iran to continue to be its hostage and a shield against the West – Iran must put its national interests before Russian interests”.

Along the same lines, Shahriar Heydari, the deputy chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in parliament, has argued that “Iran does not trust other countries in the negotiations to revive Barjam, because the reality is that each of these countries has been and is pursuing its own interests. Russia is also trying to divert world public opinion from what is happening in Ukraine to regional issues, such as Iranian nuclear deal.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin (L) and ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) in November 2015. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the United States, a group of Republican senators has recently called on president Biden to drop talks with Iran over a nuclear deal. They stress that the deal would mean a “big concession” to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the middle of war. American representatives in Vienna, however, have deemed Russia’s last-minute demand “irrelevant” and mentioned that sanctions against Russia and the JCPOA are separate issues and “there is no connection between them.” Three other countries – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – have warned that this new Russian approach could lead to the collapse of the talks.

At any rate, it is important to consider that Iran has suffered nearly four years of economic collapse and internal crisis due to both international sanctions and internal corruption. Hence, Iranian representatives in Vienna are under pressure to make progress before it is too late. On March 14, foreign minister Amirabdollahian met the his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. The two held a joint press conference in which they declared that Moscow has received a written guarantee from Washington concerning cooperation within the framework of the Iranian nuclear deal, and that the US has guaranteed that sanctions on Russia will not affect its trade with Iran. During the meeting Lavrov and Amirabdollahian emphasized the strong ties between Russia and Iran as well as the two countries’ interest in long-term cooperation, especially in the field of economic relations. In fact, the joint statement maintains that US sanctions will not harm Russia’s “right” to “free trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation” with Iran.

After Lavarov’s declarations in favour of the resumption of the Vienna negotiations, oil prices fell more than 6%. In Tehran, the stalemate in the Vienna talks due to Russian demands has been seen as an opportunity to make progress on several other outstanding issues, like sanctions related to human rights abuses and terrorism. These sanctions are directed in particular against Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards corps. At the moment, given the news of the US written guarantee, the Vienna process looks likely to keep going.

Shirin Zakeri