Iran talks paused, over Russia demands
Final text of deal ‘essentially ready,’ EU’s Josep Borrell
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced today that a pause was needed in the Iran talks due to what he called external factors, but which negotiators and experts say amount to late stage demands from Russia now under sanctions for its war on Ukraine.
The break in talks comes after negotiators after eleven months had essentially reached a final text on a document that would make way for the United States to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and for Iran to return to full implementation of its nuclear limits.
But the talks in Vienna have been at a virtual standstill this week since Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced over the weekend that Russia was seeking written guarantees from Washington that new western sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine would not harm Moscow’s trade, investment and military technical cooperation with Iran.
“A pause in Vienna talks is needed, due to external factors,” Borrell wrote on Twitter today (March 11). “A final text is essentially ready and on the table.
“As coordinator, I will, with my team, continue to be in touch with all #JCPOA participants and the U.S. to overcome the current situation and to close the agreement.”
“A break is likely to see whether the Russian problem could be solved, i.e. protection of trade with Iran from sanctions,” a European negotiator, speaking not for attribution, told me yesterday.
At what level and where would those issues on the Russia problem be pursued?
“Not in Vienna, I assume,” he said.
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman sought to downplay the gravity of the pause and said there was still momentum to reach a successful completion of a deal.
A “pause in the Vienna talks could be a momentum for resolving any remaining issue and a final return,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh wrote on Twitter.
“Successful conclusion of talks will be the main focus of all.”
“No external factor will affect our joint will to go forward for a collective agreement,” Khatibzadeh continued.
Russia’s chief negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov, speaking to Iranian journalist Abas Aslani, sought to portray that Russia was not the chief or sole reason for the impasse.
“The conclusion of the deal does not depend only on Russia,” he told Aslani. “There are other actors who need additional time and have additional concerns.”
Lavrov’s late stage demands came as a roadmap was announced between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran on solving the safeguards issue, that was one of the last pieces needed to finalize a deal.
“We requested that our US colleagues… give us written guarantees at the minimum level of Secretary of State that the current [sanctions] process launched by the US will not in any way harm our right to free, fully-fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran,” Lavrov said at a news conference on March 5.
Russia, now under broad western sanctions over its war on Ukraine, does not seem to want a major nonproliferation issue to be crossed off the western agenda, and does not want increased Iranian oil supplies on the market to bring down global energy prices, soaring in part due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, suggested Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group.
“The biggest issue now is the Russian gambit,” Vaez told me yesterday. “And I am worried this might completely derail the negotiations.”
Basically the Russians want guarantees that the US and European sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine will not impede Iranian and Russian banking and trade relations, which is a non-starter, Vaez said.
While Russia might be able to be bypassed on technical matters in the agreement, its role as a member of the Joint Commission, the body mandated to oversee implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, is hard to overcome, Vaez said.
“The concern is, Russia as a member of the Joint Commission can prevent adoption of the deal, and prevent the US from returning and having a seat at the table,” Vaez said. “I think they are looking at options, but the reality is, there are not a lot of innovative solutions to going around the Joint Commission procedures, which require consensus.”
“The hope is that either the Chinese or the Iranians could convince the Russians to drop these demands,” Vaez said. But it really appears, he added, that Russia may be determined to prevent taking a major nonproliferation crisis from being taken off the western agenda, and a reduction in global energy prices.
“Neither of those things are in the interests of Russia,” at this time, Vaez said.
“It’s not over yet,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told me yesterday.
Some experts suggested they were looking to China to see if it could exert influence to try to overcome the impasse. China’s envoy said it would continue bilateral consultations with the parties at the ministerial level to try to reach agreement.
“We regret the pause,” China’s negotiator in Vienna Wang Qun told reporters in Vienna today. “But as we know, negotiations cannot be…conducted in a political vacuum.”
“Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang has had many bilateral exchanges with the European leaders as well as with his Iranian and Russian counterparts, and we will continue to be working to push for an agreement on this deal,” China’s envoy said.
“Deeply disappointed #ViennaTalks have paused,” lead British negotiator Stephanie Al-Qaq wrote on Twitter. “Fair and comprehensive deal on table - ready for conclusion. Iran + US have worked hard to resolve final issues. E3 ready to conclude this deal now. External factors must be resolved in next few days or agreement likely to unravel.”
The State Department said a couple issues remained to be finalized for a deal, and that US envoy Rob Malley and team returned to Washington today for consultations.
“We’re still working on a small number of issues…but we continue to believe we can and should reach a mutual understanding,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists at the department press briefing today. “Decisions need to be made in Tehran and Moscow.”