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Iran nuclear talks rocked by Russian demand for sanctions exemption

Russia seeks guarantees regarding trade with Iran that would undermine west’s sanctions over Ukraine invasion

The revived deal would lift US sanctions in return for Tehran complying with with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Photograph: Majid Asgaripour/AP

Russia has been accused of trying to take the Iran nuclear deal hostage as part of its wider battle with the west over Ukraine, after it threw a last-minute spanner into plans for an agreement to lift a swathe of US economic sanctions on Tehran. After months of negotiations in Vienna, a revised deal was expected to be reached within days, under which US sanctions would be lifted in return for Tehran returning to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear non-proliferation deal. But diplomatic efforts have been sent into a tailspin by Russia’s unexpected demand for written guarantees that its economic trade with Iran will be exempted from US sanctions imposed on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, at the weekend cited the “avalanche of aggressive sanctions [on Russia] that the west has started spewing out”, and said: “This meant Moscow had to ask the US for guarantees first, requiring a clear answer that the new sanctions will not affect its rights under the nuclear deal. “We requested that our US colleagues … give us written guarantees at the minimum level of the secretary of state that the current [sanctions] process launched by the US will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.” In a sign of how sanctions will bite, Aeroflot flights from Moscow to Iran were cancelled on Sunday. If Lavrov’s demand is to require the US to exempt Russian-Iranian trade from sanctions, the west is almost certain to reject the demand since it would open a huge loophole in the sanctions regime. It would then be up to Moscow whether to veto the nuclear deal altogether. US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, dismissed Russia’s demands as “irrelevant”, saying that sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal.” They “just are not in any way linked together, so I think that’s irrelevant,” Blinken told CBS. The Vienna talks have for months been an oasis of diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the west as they painstakingly crafted a compromise acceptable to both Iran and the US. The Russian ambassador to the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, has been an indefatigable intermediary, but now risks seeing his work being undone by Moscow’s confrontation with the west over Ukraine. Iranian officials criticised Russia’s intervention, saying “the Russians put this demand on the table at the Vienna talks two days ago. There is an understanding that by changing its position in [the] Vienna talks, Russia wants to secure its interests in other places. This move is not constructive for [the] Vienna nuclear talks”. Russia also has a short-term strategic interest in scuppering or postponing the deal. Iran produces more than 2m barrels of oil a day, and if these supplies were able to reach the markets, the upward surge in prices would be slowed. Russia, a large-scale oil producer, wants to drive the oil price up both to turn the screw on western economies, but also to boost its own budget revenues. Israel, a fierce opponent of a revived nuclear deal, will be the only major country privately welcoming Russia’s actions. The parties to the deal are Iran, the E3 (France, Germany and the UK), Russia and China. The US is present in Vienna, but Iran will not directly negotiate with the US delegation. Separately, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, was in Tehran this weekend trying to secure a deal on the future inspection regime. Grossi was hoping to resolve disagreements over the IAEA’s demand for access to four sites where suspicious nuclear activities were alleged to have taken place. Iran wants the IAEA to close down these investigations, claiming they are based on false Israeli intelligence. Mohammad Eslami, the head of the Iranian atomic energy association, has also sought assurances that what Iran regards as Israeli intelligence will not form the basis of future IAEA investigations into Iran. The two sides agreed to exchange documents by June, the likely date for the Iran deal to come back into force, but seemed to have left issues about the inspection regime unresolved. Meanwhile, the IAEA will continue with an inspection regime in which its surveillance cameras remain in place, and the memory cards of the cameras kept under joint seal.

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