Russia Seeks Iran Nuclear Talks Guarantee

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Russia has injected an additional element of uncertainty into the Iran nuclear talks by demanding a written guarantee that the US will exempt its trade with Iran from any sanctions that Washington imposes on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

The demand was made on Saturday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. It’s unclear how it will affect the talks to revive the 2015 agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran’s oil exports in return for Tehran accepting curbs on its nuclear program.

Negotiations in Vienna were previously believed to have entered a final make-or-break phase to breathe new life into the agreement, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“The Russians haven't been specific. We don't know if there's going to be a problem,” said Mohammad Marandi, a professor at Tehran University who advises Iran’s negotiating team.

“If the Russians are concerned about implementation [of the JCPOA], then they are right,” Marandi said from Vienna, adding that Iran was also concerned about how a revived agreement would be implemented in practice.

Marandi’s comments echoed those made by Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh, who told local media on Monday that Tehran was waiting for clarification “through diplomatic channels.”

IAEA Chief's Tehran Trip

Lavrov's announcement came as the heads of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) agreed to “accelerate and strengthen cooperation and dialogue” to resolve outstanding issues between the two organizations.

Those issued relate to the IAEA’s access to Iran’s nuclear sites and to information provided by Iran under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which is separate from the JCPOA.

The IAEA — the UN’s nuclear safety agency — is not a party to the JCPOA but played an important role in monitoring Iran’s compliance with it.

Agreement on the agency’s access to nuclear sites and Iran’s obligations to provide information to the IAEA are regarded as crucial to the success of the Vienna talks.

The US withdrew from the original JCPOA under former President Donald Trump in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Iran responded by declaring that it would no longer be bound by the agreement, including its restrictions on the enrichment of uranium.

Unresolved Issues

Russia's last-minute demands could add to the list of remaining items that must still be resolved to conclude the talks.

These include the scope of sanctions relief, and in particular, the names of individuals and companies that Iran wants the US to remove from its lists of sanctioned entities.

"We're assessing new elements that bear on the negotiations and will accordingly seek creative ways to expedite a solution," Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran's national security council, said via Twitter.

Despite the outstanding unresolved issues, there had previously been growing optimism that negotiators in Vienna were poised to seal a deal after 10-months of on-and-off talks.

The weekend trip to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi — announced just two days in advance — had reinforced that view.

Russia's Role in JCPOA

The escalating tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine have introduced a new element of uncertainty into a drawn-out process that had appeared to be tantalizingly close to a conclusion.

Some analysts say it’s unlikely that Moscow's demands will derail the negotiations, arguing that the US, Iran and others seem to be aligned in their desire to clinch a deal, and that the progress made in the discussions between the IAEA and the AEOI will be helpful.

However, Moscow's implicit threat to use its nuclear arsenal if the Ukraine war were to escalate into a broader conflict has raised questions about its role in the process.

Under the original JCPOA, Russia took possession of surplus amounts of enriched uranium from Iran, and some nonproliferation experts argue that it could still play the same role under a revived agreement.

Under Energy Intelligence's best-case "breakthrough" scenario for a deal in Vienna, Iran's oil production would rise to 3.25 million b/d within three months and then gradually increase to 3.7 million b/d by the year's end.

That would imply a ramp-up in exports to around 1.5 million b/d and 2 million b/d respectively, assuming levels of nearly 800,000 b/d in January of this year.

Sanctions, Military Conflict, Oil Supply
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