Iran: US Sees 'Urgent' Need for Reviving JCPOA

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With oil prices hitting near-record highs this month, Tehran and Washington appear determined to revive the Iran nuclear deal, bringing much-needed Iranian oil back to the market in return for strict curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

A number of developments this week aligned in favor of a positive end to the lengthy and fraught negotiations. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to retract Russian demands for US guarantees that sanctions related to the war in Ukraine would not interfere with Russia's "right to free and full trade" with Iran; then came news of the release of two long-held British-Iranian prisoners, which was taken as a signal of a further diplomatic thaw, and that was followed by further positive statements out of the US.

The US wants "to do everything" to ensure a successful outcome to the talks aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Wednesday. Reiterating that "there is little time remaining," he added, "this is an issue that needs to be worked urgently. It is an issue that has had our urgent attention for some time now. We still continue to believe that a mutual return to compliance would be manifestly in our interests, and we are going to find out in the near term whether we’re able to get there."

Price welcomed the news from Britain, which apparently involved the release of Iranian funds to secure the prisoners' freedom, and added that "we continue to work night and day to secure the release of our wrongfully detained citizens."

Lavrov said Russia had received “written guarantees” that its collaboration with Iran on civilian nuclear projects will be preserved if an agreement is reached to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the US, Russia and four other countries. Lavrov was speaking at a press conference in Moscow on Tuesday, alongside his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Earlier this month, Moscow’s eleventh-hour demands for written guarantees on wider trade with Iran appeared to derail negotiations in Vienna to reactivate the deal, puncturing previous optimism that the process would soon reach a successful conclusion.

Lavrov said the guarantees that he claimed Russia has now received had already been incorporated in the text of an updated version of the JCPOA, which was essentially ready to be signed when the talks broke up over Russia’s demands.

“All projects and areas of activity envisaged by the JCPOA have been protected,” Lavrov said on Tuesday. These included “the direct involvement of [Russian] companies and specialists, including on such a flagship cooperation project as the Bushehr nuclear power plant,” he added.

No Obstacles

Price said that the US would not block Russian participation in nuclear projects that related to the full implementation of the JCPOA. "We can't and we won't, and we have not provided assurances beyond that to Russia," Price said.

His remarks suggested that Moscow has dramatically modified, if not abandoned, the demands Lavrov set out on Mar. 5. At the time, the Russian foreign minister had insisted on written guarantees from the US that sanctions related to the war in Ukraine would not “damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation, and military-technical cooperation” with Iran.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s chief negotiator, backed up Lavrov’s declaration that the complications linked to Ukraine-related sanctions had been resolved. Ulyanov said via Twitter that there were “no obstacles on the part of Russia to the restoration of #JCPOA” and insisted that some of Moscow’s demands had been met, without elaborating.

Russia's Crucial Role

Russia's cooperation in Vienna is crucial to the success of the negotiations. It is one of the JCPOA's signatories and a member of the Joint Commission that must adopt the text by consensus. China, France, Germany and the UK are also signatories.

But Russia also has a crucial individual role to play by taking possession of Iran's stockpiles of highly enriched uranium in exchange for low-enriched or natural uranium. Separately, it has been directly involved in helping Iran develop its civilian nuclear power capabilities, with Rosatom working on two new reactors at Bushehr.

However, that work has been hit by payment problems caused by Iran’s financial difficulties after nearly four years of crippling US sanctions. Tehran had accumulated arrears of at least $500 million as of last September.

Lavrov's remarks suggest that Russia has adopted a more conciliatory position in Vienna, especially with Iran now seemingly determined to revive the deal, which would allow it to reap the benefits of current high oil prices.

So far, US sanctions against Russia’s energy sector have not targeted the nuclear industry, although Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso touted legislation that could do so. A former member of the US negotiating team, Richard Nephew, argued that sanctioning nuclear fuel supplies could have unintended consequences. Those include complicating the Bushehr agreement and bolstering “one of Iran’s long-running arguments in defense of its own nuclear fuel cycle … that it cannot rely on markets for its supplies and that it must instead rely on indigenous production,” he wrote in an online commentary Mar. 17.

Political Pressures on Biden

Revenues from a resumption of oil exports would obviously help Tehran to pay off its arrears to Rosatom. But a senior US official reportedly said last week that the White House was mulling sanctions against the state-owned Russian nuclear company.

Such a move could reflect an outstanding challenge for the Biden administration — namely domestic political pressure not to concede too much to Iran, in terms of sanctions relief and restrictions on its nuclear activities.

On Monday, 49 out of 50 Republican senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden, saying the proposed nuclear limits on Tehran’s nuclear program "appear to be significantly less restrictive than the 2015 nuclear deal, which was itself too weak.” Still, while the deal may prove to be a political headache for Biden, it is very unlikely enough lawmakers will agree to block the US president’s ability to offer sanctions relief.

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