As the final stages of the Vienna nuclear negotiations approach, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine can play a pivotal role in the outcome. Diplomats from Iran and the parties to the Vienna talks reconvened today to potentially finalize a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although Moscow is violating international law in its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed Russia’s continued participation in Vienna despite that it has become a “pariah,” citing America’s national security interests in securing an Iran nuclear deal.
While facing a united front of Western opposition in the form of crippling economic sanctions and isolation, Vladimir Putin could manipulate Moscow’s cooperation in the Vienna talks to gain leverage over Ukraine. Additionally, Tehran is calculating how to achieve more concessions amidst the global tumult and distraction Moscow has orchestrated with its Ukraine invasion. Russia and Iran ultimately will work to secure a nuclear deal that benefits their joint interest of aligning as a counterweight to the West, particularly the United States.
Diplomats from Iran and world powers have spent the last ten months trying to revive the joint arrangement that on paper granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for some curtailments to its nuclear program. In reality, Tehran defied its obligations to the deal by denying and delaying International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to military sites while simultaneously expanding its ballistic missile capabilities and heavy weaponry manufacturing vis-à-vis sunset clauses. In fact, the JCPOA’s sunset clauses will allow Tehran to accelerate its uranium production in accordance with the deal beginning in 2024.
Despite Tehran’s recent development of uranium enrichment and fissile materials, increased proxy warfare, and directed attacks targeting U.S. military personnel, the Biden team has remained committed to securing a reinstated JCPOA. The White House’s prioritization of a deal combined with the verified assessments that Iran is merely weeks away from having enough highly-enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon has pushed Biden’s team to consider more concessions in the negotiations with the end goal of finalizing a deal, regardless of its effectiveness.
Since the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tehran has added two “key issues” to its list of demands it will require before returning to the JCPOA. According to Reuters, Iran will insist on the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. The IRGC is responsible for the regime’s proxy warfare in the region and has provided military and financial assistance to terror groups including the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas militants in Gaza. Additionally, Iran is insisting the IAEA withdraw its assertions that uranium traces were located in various undisclosed sites over the last year.
More concerning than Iran’s additional requests is Moscow’s role in the negotiations. Although Moscow and Tehran have a complex history of relations, the two countries share a common goal of creating a unified axis against the United States. In January, Putin and his Iranian counterpart, President Ebrahim Raisi, discussed a potential twenty-year arrangement that would foster military and economic collaboration between the two countries. Under this deal, Moscow would invest heavily in Iranian energy and provide technology transfers and military equipment to the regime in exchange. The strengthening of ties between the two countries certainly contributes to Iran’s position on the Ukraine crisis. This week, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian blamed Russia’s invasion on “NATO provocations” and “U.S. interference.” Iran’s support for its strategic partner will likely remain unwavering. As the international community continues to corner and sanction Russia, Putin will be leaning on China and Iran for support. Moscow is, therefore, even more inclined to push Tehran to leverage a deal that serves both countries’ interests.
Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C. and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel.