Iran’s originally ambivalent feelings and later frustration about the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is no revelation. Hassan Rouhani dedicated two terms of his presidency to building and preserving a negotiated solution on Iran’s nuclear program, but his grand mission to lift sanctions through diplomacy failed miserably with Donald Trump’s election and Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Those in the Iranian establishment who counted on the nuclear deal and sanctions removal as the most effective way of securing Iran’s economic welfare and development tried to convince skeptics that things would get back on track under a Democratic president. However, more than 500 days into Joe Biden’s presidency, little has been done on the US side to justify this expectation.
A week into August 2022, 17 months after the beginning of talks, the European Union offered a “final text” to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement before negotiations between Iran and the United States collapse for good. Days later, Iran responded with a demand for future guaranteed compensation if the United States were to again break the deal. Booming cooperation with sanctions-hit Moscow, as well as Iran’s experience of living under sanctions, has boosted Tehran’s courage to push for an ironclad deal.
Russia’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia has always supported diplomatic efforts with Iran, despite some unsubstantiated claims that Moscow tried to sabotage the Iran deal talks before 2015 and again in 2022. However, the Russian stance on Iran’s nuclear program has legitimate nuances. Officials in Moscow find nuclear weapons development by a non-nuclear weapon state unacceptable but see no threat from a robust civilian nuclear program in Iran, as long as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies its peaceful nature.
The 2015 nuclear deal exceeded Russia’s expectations. Tehran could satisfy them through the existing framework—that is, by resolving its outstanding issues with the IAEA under its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and, ideally, ratifying the Additional Protocol to the Agreement.
Some unofficial voices in Russia privately question the value of the Iran deal. These voices belong to those who have nothing to do with nonproliferation, see little value in a limited economic cooperation between Russia and Iran, and in a sanctions-driven turbulent zone prefer to first put a mask on the Russian economy rather than aid Iran’s energy exports and sanctions-free economic development.
The Russian government heeds these voices but puts a premium on the nonproliferation regime and increasingly friendly ties with Iran. Despite earlier pessimism about Russian commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, Russia’s negotiators remain committed to the talks as crucial interlocutors. Russia’s rich technical expertise and assistance to Iran in bringing its nuclear program back to full compliance with the nuclear deal will come in handy if the agreement is restored.
Therefore, contemplating an Iran deal without Russia runs against common sense. Russia’s role as a bridge-builder between the United States and Iran, along with the unified approach of the six negotiators to Iran’s nuclear dossier, was instrumental to the diplomatic success before 2015 and is still relevant to the diplomatic processes in Vienna and other capitals.
A sanctions-resistant economic partnership. This is not the first time that the conflict in Ukraine is testing the viability of the Russia-US dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program: Back in 2014, it took an effort for the decision makers and diplomats who negotiated the Iran deal to compartmentalize the talks and prioritize nonproliferation concerns over other considerations.
However, in 2022 Russia has outstripped Iran on the quantity and severity of sanctions it is facing, and the Russian economy is now adding to the critical mass necessary to defy the sanctions adopted by the United States and its European allies. The prospect for sanctions removal has been a lucrative opportunity for Iran’s economy to recover and thus an effective leverage in the hands of the Iran deal negotiators. But with no realistic prospects for lifting sanctions on Russia, regardless of the status of hostilities in Ukraine, building a sanctions-resistant economic partnership in a tougher environment offers Moscow and Tehran glimpses of hope that they could operate without what they perceive as excruciating and unreliable diplomatic efforts with the United States and its allies.
The Iranians maintain they suffered enough under President Trump to keep up their end of the deal, and that the United States must reciprocate beyond just recognizing the gigantic mistake of the previous administration. The Russians agree that the United States owns the current diplomatic deadlock.
It’s time for a bold US move. Before the Iran nuclear deal talks fall apart, Washington must make a bold move—practical or symbolic—to demonstrate its interest in restoring the deal and help Iranian negotiators convince the decision makers in Tehran that the United States respects Iran as a negotiator and knows what it means to honor an international agreement. The Biden administration wasted the opportunity to lift the useless designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, which would have been an easier option than developing a credible mechanism to secure Iran’s economic benefits under the nuclear deal even if a future US administration leaves the restored agreement. Now that Tehran considers this commitment vital for the nuclear deal revival, Washington had better address this issue in consultation with the other negotiators, rather than risk the collapse of the deal by excessively bargaining with Iran.
Long before anyone could imagine a working agreement between the United States and Iran, US President Barack Obama offered a brave example of breaking with the inherited inertia of deteriorating relations. Remember the Nowruz address he gave in 2009, celebrating the Iranian holiday for the first time since Iran seized 52 US diplomats in 1979, and eight years after Iran was included in the “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush.
Despite a host of issues Biden faces, he is obliged by the legacy of his Democratic predecessor to show a similar determination to revive the Iran deal. Otherwise, he will share the blame for carelessly killing the hard-achieved nuclear agreement, and the United States will share the burden of yet another escalation in the Middle East.
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