Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program just got more interesting. And if U.S. President Joe Biden wants them to succeed, he should insist they proceed with one fewer member.
The news from Vienna this week is about a recording made in March for an oral history project. On the recording, which was first leaked to the Persian news channel Iran International and then the New York Times, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledges that he was often undermined and overruled by his country’s own security forces in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal. The disclosure proved a point critics of those negotiations have often made: Zarif is merely a representative of, not a counterbalance to, Iran’s hard-liners.
The most revealing moment of the recording involves Russia’s opposition to the 2015 nuclear agreement. Zarif says that Russia “put all its weight” against the deal because, as the Times dryly explains, “it was not in Moscow’s interests for Iran to normalize relations with the West.” That is an extraordinary admission considering that Russia was one of six countries negotiating the deal with Iran.
To illustrate Russia’s opposition to the nuclear deal, Zarif points to the late commander of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s visit to Moscow shortly after the completion of the negotiations. While there, Soleimani cemented a separate agreement between Russia and Iran to aid Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war. At the time, the U.S. and its allies were supporting the moderate factions of Assad’s resistance. Zarif says Soleimani’s visit was meant to “demolish our achievement,” meaning the nuclear deal.
Zarif’s candor helps explain other concessions made by the U.S. and Western countries as the negotiations wound down. It was Russia, for example, which insisted on sunsetting a United Nations ban on conventional weapons sales to Iran that expired last year. The final deal also no longer required the International Atomic Energy Agency to certify that Iran’s past nuclear work was not part of a weapons program. Perhaps Russia’s foreign ministry believed these concessions would be poison pills in Washington.
As it turns out, they were not. The separate Iranian-Russian pact did not deter President Barack Obama’s administration from pushing skeptical Democrats in Congress to support the deal. Nor did other last-minute concessions.
All of this helps explain why the deal, from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018, is so weak. But it also raises another important question: At this point, what justification is there for Russia to be one of the six nations negotiating with Iran?
The argument for including Russia in the initial negotiations was based on an assumption that Russia and the U.S. had a common interest in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In addition, the Obama administration did not believe it could coerce Iran into a nuclear deal without a united front. If Russia and China were to undermine America’s crippling sanctions, then Iran would never feel the economic pressure necessary to join the nuclear negotiations.
This argument has been discredited by the success of the sanctions the U.S. unilaterally re-imposed on Iran in 2018 and 2019, which caused foreign banks and oil companies to stay away. America’s economy is just too powerful to risk the wrath of the U.S. Treasury Department.
The question persists: Why is Russia participating in the nuclear negotiations at all? It only gives the Kremlin another piece of unearned leverage with Biden, who campaigned on taking a hard line against President Vladimir Putin.
Iran understands that only America can provide it the kind of economic relief it believes it is owed. Including Russia in the current talks in Vienna is just an invitation for more diplomatic mischief. If you don’t believe me, just ask Javad Zarif.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
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