Russia Links Ukraine Sanctions to Iran Nuclear Talks to Shake Down Biden Administration

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Russia Links Ukraine Sanctions to Iran Nuclear Talks to Shake Down Biden Administration

Mar 9, 2022 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center

James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives comments to the media after a ceremony to sign a declaration on allied cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan at Moscow. Sergei Guneyev / TASS / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Russia, like Iran, seeks to exploit the diplomatic desperation of the Biden administration, which seeks to renew the flawed and risky 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

Agreeing to a new carve-out for Russian trade and investment in Iran would clearly add another controversial new element to the Iran nuclear deal.

The United States and its allies must firmly reject Russia’s effort to hijack the Iran negotiations to advance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hostile agenda.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dropped a diplomatic bomb on the multilateral Iran nuclear talks in a transparent gambit to undermine sanctions that the U.S. recently imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Lavrov insisted on Saturday, “We need guarantees these sanctions will in no way affect the trading, economic, and investment relations contained in the [deal] for the Iranian nuclear program.”

Lavrov essentially wants a diplomatic back door created to enable Moscow to evade U.S. sanctions. This demand is a stunning attempt to hold hostage the Iran talks in a desperate effort to shrug off U.S. sanctions on Russia.

Russia, like Iran, seeks to exploit the diplomatic desperation of the Biden administration, which seeks to renew the flawed and risky 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

Russian Diplomatic Hostage-taking

Lavrov’s demand threatens to throw a diplomatic monkey wrench into the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna at a crucial point when they seemed to be on the verge of a deal.

Under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, Russia was granted limited immunity from the U.S.’ Iran sanctions in order to remove enriched uranium from Iran and support operations at Iran’s civilian nuclear power plant and other facilities.

Now, however, in order to cooperate with any new Iranian deal, Lavrov seeks to gain far more sweeping guarantees that would open major loopholes in Western economic, financial, and energy sanctions imposed on Russia recently due to its aggression in Ukraine.

In addition to the diplomatic roadblock created by Russia’s push for immunity against sanctions related to Ukraine, Lavrov’s demand also exacerbates a political problem for the administration regarding the nuclear negotiations.

The 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the administration to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for review within five days of its completion.

The administration has argued that the Vienna talks are aimed at resurrecting an old agreement and thus would not require congressional approval, despite the changed circumstances, new technical details, and textual changes inherent in any forthcoming agreement.

Agreeing to a new carve-out for Russian trade and investment in Iran would clearly add another controversial new element to the Iran nuclear deal that would require congressional review.

Iran Remains Eager to Cash in on a New Deal

Iranian officials, who are eager to gain sanctions relief promised under a new deal, also have been concerned about the last-minute Russian demand. A senior Iranian official said on Saturday, “There is an understanding that by changing its position in Vienna talks Russia wants to secure its interests in other places. This move is not constructive for Vienna nuclear talks.”

Tehran’s anxiety about Moscow’s opportunistic move to muscle in on Iran’s nuclear extortion racket shows that Iran highly values the benefits of a deal that involves trading temporary restrictions on uranium enrichment for permanent sanctions relief.

Iran has been haggling to extract as many concessions from the U.S. as possible, especially concessions that would make it more difficult for Washington to threaten additional sanctions in order to reach a longer and stronger follow-on agreement that the Biden administration says it wants.

Without a follow-on agreement, another nuclear deal would be shorter, weaker, and riskier than the original 2015 agreement. Key restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program will again progressively expire by 2031, providing a shorter period of nonproliferation barriers than the original agreement. That would allow Iran to build an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program that would enable it to rapidly build a nuclear weapon if it violates its nonproliferation obligations.

A new agreement also would be weaker and riskier because Tehran has hollowed out some parts of the agreement that kept its nuclear capabilities in check by violating restrictions on centrifuges and producing uranium metal. These violations allowed it to gain the experience necessary for a more rapid nuclear breakout capability.

Despite such drawbacks, the Biden administration is determined to seal another deal with Iran.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that a deal was close but cautioned that “a couple of very challenging remaining issues” were still unresolved.

Blinken also rejected Lavrov’s proposed linkage of sanctions relief for Russia to the nuclear deal.

“The sanctions that have been put in place … on Russia have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal and the prospects of getting back into that agreement,” Blinken said. “These things are totally different and just are not, in any way, linked together. So I think that’s irrelevant.”

Stay tuned to see if the administration sticks with this position.

Stop Putin From Hijacking the Vienna talks

Russia is not trying to derail a nuclear agreement with Iran but is seeking to protect Russian gains from such an agreement and gain additional relief from U.S. sanctions imposed upon it because of its aggression against Ukraine.

The United States and its allies must firmly reject Russia’s effort to hijack the Iran negotiations to advance Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hostile agenda.

If Moscow continues its diplomatic extortion efforts, then Washington should walk away from the Vienna nuclear talks. This move would not only block Putin from extracting benefits in the form of sanctions relief, but would avoid the pitfall of entering another flawed and risky nuclear deal with Iran.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal