Iran nuclear deal appears imminent
Biden administration resumes negotiations after a delay
The United States and Russia appeared to reach an agreement Tuesday that will allow the Iran nuclear deal to move forward. The breakthrough came after last-minute trade demands from Russia had threatened to derail negotiations.
Despite a Russian invasion and bombing campaign in Ukraine that has dragged on for three weeks, U.S. officials have prioritized collaborating with Russia to restart the nuclear agreement, meant to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Russia in early March had demanded the deal include relief from the sanctions the United States and its allies have levied against Russia. Although negotiators with President Joe Biden’s administration didn’t grant that request, Republicans in Congress have made it clear they’ll oppose any agreement that isn’t tough on Iran.
The Iran deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was first struck in 2015 under President Barack Obama. It restricts Iran’s uranium enrichment and other activities in exchange for relief from U.S. sanctions. In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, calling it weak and instead sanctioning Iran to hobble its financial resources. The Biden administration has been negotiating a return to the deal for 11 months.
Russia’s cooperation is key. Iran, which began stockpiling highly enriched uranium after Trump exited the deal, has refused to negotiate directly with the United States, so Russia has served, along with other countries, as an intermediary. Following the pattern of the 2015 agreement, Russia will likely also help Iran implement the agreement through tasks like shipping Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country, a responsibility the U.S. and its European allies are reluctant to shoulder.
On March 5, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded written confirmation from the United States that Iranian companies would be exempt from consequences for working with sanctioned Russian companies — a concession that could have cushioned the economic blow of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Russia called for free trade, investment, and military cooperation between itself and Iran. The United States quickly dismissed the demand. Negotiations paused Friday over what European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles called “external factors,” though Russia claimed it didn’t cause the holdup.
On Tuesday, Lavrov indicated in a press conference that Russia would be satisfied if the United States guaranteed simply not to sanction Russia over activities necessary to implement the deal. A senior western diplomat confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that Russia had accepted the more limited terms, allowing Russia to cooperate with Iran by providing it with uranium fuel for its reactors and helping it convert the Fordow nuclear plant into a research facility, for example. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, “We of course would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA. We have not provided assurances beyond that to Russia.”
The renegotiated deal hasn’t been published, but reporting suggests it’s largely a return to the 2015 version, which temporarily restricted Iran’s nuclear work. In addition to sanctions relief, Iran wants its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps removed from the U.S. terror blacklist, which will be a tough sell. But other figures, including Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, will likely be struck from terror lists. Some members of the U.S. negotiating team left the negotiations, reportedly over concerns that the United States has offered too many concessions.
Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran has refused to consider a stronger deal. “We’ll be paying more for this deal, essentially for shorter terms and then also a growing threat that happens along the way,” Stricker said. “The Biden administration seems to want to just put this problem in a box for a couple of years.” She predicted a final agreement as soon as next week.
Forty-nine of the 50 Republican senators signed a statement Monday pledging to oppose any agreement that doesn’t totally block Iran’s nuclear development, limit its ballistic missile program, and confront its support for terrorism. The lone holdout, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, said in a statement: “Condemning a deal that is not yet formulated is akin to condemning diplomacy itself, not a very thoughtful position.”
Republicans can’t block approval of the president’s agreement without Democrat support, but a future Republican president could overturn it. “It underscores why we need a bipartisan solution, bipartisan Iran policy,” Stricker said. Her preference: Recruit European and Asian allies to reimpose strict sanctions and force Iran to accept a tougher agreement.
“We need enough international pressure to force the regime to make a decision about finally opening up its program to transparency and to real limits,” she said.