Russia between the JCPOA and the JCPOA+

22.09.2021

With the arrival of Joe Biden at the White House, there have been real prerequisites for the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal. Will it be a return to the previous agreement, or it will be necessary to add new articles, because of which the United States under Donald Trump withdrew from the deal earlier in 2018, considering it insufficiently tough and not covering all vital issues. But do the additional articles for the JCPOA meet Russia's interests, and does it need the Iran deal at all?

Overheard conversation

The scandalous leak of a conversation between the previous Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Zarif Javad and economist Saeed Lailaz in April 2021 caused a major scandal. First, the Foreign Minister said that the formation of Iran's foreign policy is mainly influenced by the military of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and diplomats are given a minor role even in international negotiations. Secondly, Mr. Zarif accused Russia of trying to disrupt the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. He also said that it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who dragged the Iranian armed forces into the Syrian conflict after the visit of General Qasem Suleimani to Moscow ten days after the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna. Zarif Javad claimed that this trip was made on the initiative of Moscow without any control from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, and the goal was to destroy the JCPOA and draw the Iranian air and land forces into military operations[1]. And if the first topic about the increased role of the IRGC in politics caused a scandal, first of all, inside Iran, the second has touched on the field of foreign policy and relations with Russia. There were speculations that in fact Russia does not benefit from the JCPOA and the future lifting of international sanctions against Iran due to the expected fall in the price of oil since the beginning of the export of this energy carrier by the Iranian side and the possible "departure" of Iran to the West.

The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, commenting on the leaked conversation, said that Moscow "judges by cases, and not by some ill-conceived or impermissible statements" and recalled that Tehran itself has repeatedly officially thanked Russia for its position and assistance on the Iranian nuclear program. "Without the decisive assistance of the Russian Federation, it would not have been possible in a relatively short time to finally remove all the questions that the IAEA has accumulated about Iran, to guarantee transparency and exclusively peaceful orientation of its nuclear activities. Without this, the JCPOA would not have existed in 2015, and certainly, it would have sunk in 2018 after President Trump withdrew from the deal," Zakharova noted. According to her, the interpretation of this leak in the midst of the ongoing negotiations in Vienna between the countries participating in the Iranian nuclear deal and the United States "only harm the cause", and Moscow, in turn, will continue efforts to revive the JCPOA[2].

The situation around the scandal with the leak of the conversation was also commented on by Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov. "Russia has consistently supported the JCPOA and stands for the return to full and speedy implementation of all elements of the agreement by all its parties. We see the political determination and diligence of our partners and colleagues in the negotiation process – first, Iran and the United States themselves, as well as China, Great Britain, Germany and France," Mr. Ulyanov said[3]. The fact that Moscow expects an early revival of the JCPOA is confirmed by the actions of the Russian government. On March 31, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a special session of the Valdai discussion club that Russia had proposed an informal roadmap where Iran and the United States were to consistently return step by step to fulfilling their original obligations[4].

A special partner in the Middle East

The United States themselves helped Iran to start a nuclear program under President Eisenhower in 1957, but after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, relations between the two countries deteriorated, and Washington's position changed dramatically – sanctions were imposed on Iran, and the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant by the West German Siemens concern was stopped. Since then, relations between Tehran and the West have remained strained, although the parties periodically try to sit down at the table and resolve some issues through diplomatic means[5].

Regarding the possible departure of Iran to the West, in the event of a successful implementation of the JCPOA, we must remember that even if Washington and Tehran manage to agree on the main issues of the nuclear deal, there will still be a huge range of disagreements. From the very beginning of its existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been pursuing an anti-Western and anti-Israeli policy. And for Moscow, Iran occupies a special position in the region. The views of the two countries are similar on many issues related to security issues, ranging from the problem of NATO expansion to the Syrian conflict. In this regard, the JCPOA and the potential international “opening” of Iran represent significant opportunities for Russia to further strengthen and expand relations between the two countries. The Russian side also benefits from stabilizing the situation in the region and preventing an increase in tension in the Gulf.

After the implementation of the JCPOA, the international market should soon expect the arrival of Iranian oil (10% of the world's proven oil reserves (158 billion barrels) are located in Iran), which will inevitably cause a drop in the price of this energy carrier, and it will be unprofitable for Russia, which has a third of the budget formed at the expense of oil and gas revenues. However, firstly, the long-term oil price is determined by fundamental factors, and it is unlikely that the situation with Iran can significantly affect this. Secondly, over the past decades, Russia has been purposefully trying to reduce its dependence on the "oil needle", and this has already been partially achieved – the share of oil and gas revenues in the total revenues of the federal budget has decreased from 40.8% in 2019 to 35% in 2022," the Ministry of Finance said in a statement[6]. And finally, the opening opportunities of Iran in the international arena promises great benefits for Russia. As President Vladimir Putin himself recently stated: "We have plans for cooperation with Iran, including in the field of military-technical cooperation, all this within the framework of the decisions that were agreed in our program, on the Iranian nuclear program within the framework of the UN decisions together with our partners on the preparation of the JCPOA, where at a certain stage sanction against Iran should be lifted, including in the field of military-technical cooperation."[7] A clear example of future cooperation between Russia and Iran in the field of nuclear energy development can be the production of stable isotopes at the Iranian nuclear facility in Fordo. After the implementation of the JCPOA, these obstacles to the implementation of this project under the control of the IAEA will finally disappear. The prospects that appear after the lifting of international sanctions against Iran overshadow all the disadvantages for Russia.

Most likely, the relations between the two countries will not be of the nature of a real strategic partnership, as is often stated. Russia, defending its interests in the Middle East and, in particular, in Syria, maintains normal business relations with almost all Middle Eastern states, including with Iran's main opponents – Saudi Arabia and Israel. In this situation, joining a strategic alliance with Iran could dramatically weaken Russia's position and lead to confrontation, firstly, with the majority of countries in the region, and secondly, with the global Sunni Muslim majority, which is fraught with internal political consequences for Moscow. But as Nematollah Yazdi, the last Iranian ambassador to the USSR and the first Iranian ambassador to Russia, said in one of his last interviews: "We cannot have strategic relations. Our goals in some areas contradict each other... But we can have the best relationship at the highest level… Tehran and Moscow cannot be strategic allies, but they must have a strategy for developing their relations."[8]

JCPOA or JCPOA+

To begin with, it is worth saying that the issue of restoring the operation of the JCPOA has become more complicated over the past 3 years. According to the analyst of the Institute of International Studies of MGIMO Adlan Margoev, under Donald Trump, the US returned the sanctions that were lifted by Barack Obama, and then imposed new ones, which Iran now demands to be removed. To which the American delegation objects, since some of the sanctions - for example, those that were imposed against the IRGC - have nothing to do with the nuclear program[9]. The situation is also complicated by the fact that after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran increased the degree of uranium enrichment to 60% of the U-235 isotope, using more advanced centrifuges, and increasing stocks of this radioactive material. Meanwhile, under the terms of the deal, Iran is allowed to produce only limited amounts of uranium enriched to 3.67%, which is used in nuclear power plants.

The appearance of nuclear weapons in Iran and the expansion of the "Nuclear Club" do not meet the interests of Russia. Back in June 2003, President Vladimir Putin stressed in an interview with the BBC: "If we talk about the main threat of the XXI century, I believe that this is the problem of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."[10] In the same 2003, Russia repeatedly called on Tehran to sign the Additional Protocol, and two years later criticized the country's leadership when it suspended the voluntary implementation of this protocol. In 2009 and 2010, Russia approved the introduction of UN sanctions against Iran when it turned out that Tehran was hiding the construction of the then-secret Fordo facility and rejected the proposal to send low-enriched uranium to Russia for enrichment to the level of 19.75% and subsequent production of fuel cells from it in France for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Now, when Iran has again tightened its rhetoric and has increasingly begun to declare that it will act contrary to the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, Moscow has returned to a more critical position towards Tehran. According to Russia, the Additional Protocol must be implemented to ensure transparency of Iran's actions, so Tehran's threats to curtail cooperation with the IAEA cause concern in Moscow. In November 2020, Russia said that Tehran's withdrawal from the Additional Protocol would significantly worsen the situation, and a few days later warned that Iran's plans to install three more cascades of advanced IR-2m centrifuges in Natanz exacerbate "an already difficult and tense state of affairs." After Iran's announcement about the production of uranium metal, Moscow called on Tehran for "restraint and responsibility" and said that Russia is ready to work closely with the Biden administration to preserve the nuclear deal[11].

Moscow is concerned about the problem of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and seeks to preserve the 5+1 format[12], but at the same time Russia will not take too tough a position on the Iranian nuclear program, as the United States demands[13]. Moscow considered the original deal to be quite balanced and never agreed with the opponents of the current deal, who demanded that Iran be deprived of the right to enrich uranium. So, Russia will not demand additional concessions from Tehran[14].

According to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russia supports the restoration of the JCPOA in its original form, without any modifications, and the attempts of the Americans to create a kind of JCPOA+ with the addition of a missile program and the so-called "rules of Iran's behavior in the region" lead only to a "dead-end position"[15]. Earlier, US President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, noting that the document does not cover some important issues, in particular the problem of Iran's development of ballistic missiles and "terrorist activity" in the region, meaning, first of all, support for Shiite paramilitary groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, etc. What will the additional restrictions of Iran give to Russia? First of all, this is the strengthening of the position of American allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Despite Moscow's good and stable relations with these countries, it is the balance of power in the region that meets Russia's interests, which is especially important against the background of the region's seething events. It should be understood that Iran is Russia's most important geopolitical partner, a growing regional "superpower" that balances the expansion of major countries in the region such as Turkey and the expanding military and political presence of the United States in the Black Sea-Caspian region, which is happening without coordination with Russia and with unclear goals for it. Secondly, linking the solution of nuclear non-proliferation problems with other issues only complicates the task and prevents achieving specific tasks, as Mr. Lavrov stated.

More meetings in the Austrian capital

The current negotiations in Vienna are held within the framework of a Joint Commission that decides on the implementation of the JCPOA. The priority is to bring Washington back to the deal, prompting it to lift sanctions against Iran and to make sure that Tehran once again fully fulfills its nuclear obligations. In other words, we are talking about the abolition of American restrictions in exchange for further full-fledged participation of Iran in the JCPOA. The task is complex, for which three working expert groups were formed, two of them - on the lifting of US anti-Iranian sanctions and the nuclear issue - are searching for concrete steps that Tehran and Washington need to take to fully restore the nuclear deal. The task of the third expert group is to coordinate the sequence of these steps. Informal meetings are regularly held between these negotiations. Indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran are also taking place in parallel with this[16]. However, despite such impressive efforts, there are no concrete results yet. If in the spring of 2021, the parties to the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue optimistically expected its successful completion by the presidential elections in Iran on June 18, now everyone is more restrained in their statements.

At the moment, most of the participants in the negotiations are completely focused on the only task that is clear to everyone — the return of the "zero option" of the JCPOA without any additional articles. As Mikhail Ulyanov stated: "The task of fully restoring the nuclear deal in its original form is being solved. An example is Russia, which also has obligations under the JCPOA to organize, together with Iran, the production of stable isotopes for medical purposes at the Iranian nuclear facility in Fordo. Now these works are suspended in the light of objective reasons related to the US withdrawal from the agreement."[17] As mentioned earlier, Russia and Iran have joint projects in the field of peaceful nuclear energy, so in this case, the lifting of international sanctions and the opening of opportunities for deepening cooperation between the two also meets Moscow's interests. Russia opposes the tightening of the Treaty, its restrictions and control measures and is aimed at expanding its nuclear exports in every possible way.

So, the Russian position on the further fate of the JCPOA suggests the following. First, Moscow welcomes the very fact of returning to negotiations. Secondly, it insists on the need to separate nuclear issues from other topics. Otherwise, the possibility of reaching any compromises becomes extremely doubtful. Thirdly, it offers a "synchronized approach", where Washington and Tehran should synchronize their concessions: the first one unfreezes Iranian assets and lifts sanctions, the second one gradually returns to the terms of the deal. Moscow's primary goal is to prevent the expansion of the “Nuclear Club” and the corrosion of the NPT system, the creation and development of which the country has been engaged in for half a century since the birth of the non-proliferation system. And the weakening of such an important partner as Iran, with which Russia has many common interests, also does not fit into Moscow's foreign policy in any way.

 


[1] Zarif leak reveals who really wields power in Iran nuclear deal. Financial Times. URL: https://www.ft.com/content/7266aa0c-d9e2-4f5d-8dc5-d2e00ee0b4ad

[2] МИД прокомментировал утечку разговора Зарифа о внешней политике. РИА Новости. URL: https://ria.ru/20210429/utechka-1730522115.html

[3] Постпред России в Вене объяснил, почему необходимо восстановить СВПД. РИА Новости. URL: https://ria.ru/20210609/svpd-1736227158.html

[4] Россия предложила неформальную дорожную карту по выполнению СВПД. Известия. URL: https://iz.ru/1144826/2021-03-31/rossiia-predlozhila-neformalnuiu-dorozhnuiu-kartu-po-vypolneniiu-svpd

[5] Iran and U.S. Agree on Path Back to Nuclear Deal. The New York Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/world/europe/iran-nuclear-deal.html

[6] Треть доходов бюджетной системы России оказалась связана с нефтью и газом. РБК. https://www.rbc.ru/economics/22/08/2019/5d555e4b9a7947aed7a185de

[7] Путин рассказал о планах сотрудничества с Ираном. РИА Новости. URL: https://ria.ru/20210614/iran-1736957186.html

[8] Партнёрство России и Ирана: текущее состояние и перспективы развития. РСМД и IRAS. URL: https://russiancouncil.ru/common/upload/RIAC-IRAS-Russia-Iran-Report29.pdf

[9] Андерграунд переговоров: когда может завершиться реанимация СВПД. Екатерина Постникова. Известия. URL: https://iz.ru/1168346/ekaterina-postnikova/andergraund-peregovorov-kogda-mozhet-zavershitsia-reanimatciia-svpd

[10] President Vladimir Putin gave an interview to the BBC. Kremlin. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/28882

[11] Опять о ядерном. Договорятся ли Россия и США по Ирану. Hanna Notte, Hamidreza Azizi. Московский центр Карнеги. URL: https://carnegie.ru/commentary/83914

[12] On the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to ensure the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. MFA Russia. URL: https://www.mid.ru/o-hode-vypolnenia-sovmestnogo-vseob-emlusego-plana-dejstvij-po-obespeceniu-mirnogo-haraktera-iranskoj-adernoj-programmy?p_p_id=56_INSTANCE_6mNoRa6TKlLd&_56_INSTANCE_6mNoRa6TKlLd_languageId=en_GB

[13] What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal? Council on Foreign Relations. URL: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal

[14] Санкции против Ирана и будущее СВПД: взгляд из Тегерана и Москвы. Иван Тимофеев. РСМД. URL: https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/sanktsii-protiv-irana-i-budushchee-svpd-vzglyad-iz-tegerana-i-moskvy/?sphrase_id=81520797

[15] Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to media questions during a special session of the Valdai International Discussion Club on the Middle East, Moscow, March 31, 2021. MFA Russia. URL: https://www.mid.ru/ru/maps/jo/-/asset_publisher/bjowS9H8QFIj/content/id/4660109?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_bjowS9H8QFIj&_101_INSTANCE_bjowS9H8QFIj_languageId=en_GB

[16] Андерграунд переговоров: когда может завершиться реанимация СВПД. Екатерина Постникова. Известия. URL: https://iz.ru/1168346/ekaterina-postnikova/andergraund-peregovorov-kogda-mozhet-zavershitsia-reanimatciia-svpd

[17] «Все сконцентрированы на возвращении «нулевого варианта» СВПД». Екатерина Постникова. Известия. URL: https://iz.ru/1168298/ekaterina-postnikova/vse-skontcentrirovany-na-vozvrashchenii-nulevogo-varianta-svpd

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