Iran nuclear talks and the shadow of the Ukraine crisis

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, representatives from Iran and the P5+1: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany, will meet in Vienna to continue working toward a comprehensive agreement around Iran’s nuclear program. The last such meeting was held in mid-March – not long after the Russian invasion of Crimea, and some worried that the crisis would set back the talks.

Those initial fears do not seem to be playing out, despite U.S. and other European countries having sharp, fundamental differences with Moscow over the developments in Ukraine. Russian representative to the P5+1 talks Sergei Ryabkov has warned, however, that if U.S. and EU measures, such as sanctions against Russia, intensified in the future, Russia might use the negotiations as an opportunity to take “retaliatory measures”. He also suggested that “reunification” with Crimea was far more important to Moscow than the Iran nuclear issue (AP, March 19).

Meanwhile, progress in the Iran nuclear negotiations has apparently been sufficient enough to prompt a U.S. official to predict that the parties may be able to start drafting a comprehensive accord in May (Al-Monitor, April 4). At the end of this past week, lower level technical meetings were also held in Vienna, and Iran’s negotiator Hamid Baeedinejad reported that they went well (Reuters, April 5). The parties have given themselves a goal of July 20th to reach a comprehensive agreement. Tough issues, such as agreeing on how much of Iran’s nuclear program should remain intact, and the level of verification measures that are required and acceptable, will be challenging enough without having a major but unrelated crisis derail the process.

The parties still have substantial reasons to work toward a successful deal. Iranian leaders want an end to the controversy around the nuclear program, and to improve relations with the EU and the United States. Russia shares similar interests to the EU and United States in avoiding a nuclear armed Iran, or a more intense or wider war in the region where it has important economic interests. (“Personal political interests” are also wrapped up in the negotiations, as discussed in this new BASIC blog article.) Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis could still have a tangible impact on the Iran nuclear negotiations in two important possible ways that could be mutually reinforcing:

Iran tests unity – Iranian leaders decide the Ukraine crisis presents an opportunity to take advantage of brewing disunity within the P5+1, and they attempt to drag out the process in an effort to extract a more favorable agreement. As Mark Fitzpatrick explains, Iranian leaders might also decide that the Ukraine crisis gives them a better chance of striking a side deal with the Russians. This dynamic would complicate matters, but not derail the process on its own. (Recent reports suggested Russia may have agreed a sanctions-busting deal with Iran on a potential billion goods-for-oil barter (Reuters, April 2).

Ukraine crisis worsens – if the U.S. with NATO and the EU took measures that Russia interprets as more threatening to its security, Russia could yet use the Iran nuclear talks for requital. Relations have already worsened since Ryabkov’s comment – with NATO suspending its civilian and military cooperation with Russia, and Moscow recalling its Ambassador to NATO on April 3 for consultations.

Scholar Seyed Hossein Mousavian explains that Russia and Iran could choose to further develop their shared strategic interests and form a “power pole” in the Middle East in the context of the ongoing strife in Syria.

There are as many differences as similarities between today’s situation and the Cold War, but even so it may be worth remembering that Moscow and Washington were able to manage their relations at the most difficult times. The current talks are finally showing signs of progress, and it would be unfortunate if the Ukraine crisis instigated their unravelling now.


 -These are the views of the author.

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