Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, fears of the war's spillover effects have spread to Vienna, where delicate talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal have been steadily progressing after nearly a year. It now appears, though, that Russia's aggression will not imperil those negotiations just as they reach the finish line, after Moscow reportedly backed off demands for relief from the sweeping Western sanctions imposed over its war in Ukraine.
The United States and the European countries still in the agreement have explicitly opposed any concessions to Russia that would fall outside the scope of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. After the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018 under President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden has made rejoining it one of his foreign policy priorities.
Russia's recent move to hold up the nuclear talks with its own demands around Ukraine may have backfired, according to Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, where he is also senior adviser to the president. "What Russia did not foresee was the backlash that this created inside Iran," Vaez told Democracy in Exile in an interview. "This was in two ways. First, I think there was a sense of anger and frustration within the Iranian public that Russia is taking Iran down with it and depriving 85 million Iranians from getting sanctions relief, only because Russia itself is now sanctioned as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. Second, there was also a sense of deep disappointment and anger at the Iranian government for failing to point fingers at Russia."
Vaez believes that "Russia has now calculated that at the end of the day, damaging its relations with Iran is not worth the short-term benefits of obstructing the JCPOA's restoration." But as a trading partner, Iran has limited ability to throw Russia a "lifeline" and ease the pressure of Western sanctions.
In his interview with Democracy in Exile, Vaez, who is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discussed a wide range of issues, including the "abject failure" of Trump's so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran, why Republicans in Congress opposed to reviving the JCPOA "have no ground to stand on," and why "there is no deal that would ever satisfy Israel's demands."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacted the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers?
During the last round of negotiations in Vienna, which coincided with the war in Ukraine, Russia submitted two papers to the joint commission of the JCPOA. The JCPOA is comprised of the current participants to the agreement, which required written guarantees from the U.S. on Russia's ability to expand and enhance its ties with Iran across the board, from military cooperation to economic ties, to obviously the role that Russia is supposed to play in the implementation of the nuclear agreement. The latter is quite important because Russia will ship out excess low-enriched uranium from Iran and is in charge of converting the Fordow nuclear facility from an enrichment site into a nuclear physics, research and development site, for work on stable isotopes. And finally, Moscow is in charge of delivering nuclear fuel to the Tehran research reactor and the Bushehr reactor, and repatriating spent fuel back to Russia.
Russia has now calculated that at the end of the day, damaging its relations with Iran is not worth the short-term benefits of obstructing the JCPOA's restoration.
- Ali Vaez
On these nuclear steps, the U.S. had no problem in issuing waivers for Russia's ability to conduct this work as part of its responsibilities under the JCPOA. But the impression at the time was that Russia was trying to punch holes in the Western sanctions regime against Russia over Ukraine, through the JCPOA, and was basically trying to take the agreement hostage to the Western countries making concessions on this front—which was of course completely unacceptable to the U.S. and Europeans. It was also a surprise because in 2014, during the original deal's negotiation, there was another Ukraine crisis in Crimea and it had no spillover effect into the JCPOA negotiations, despite the fact that Russia was, even then, targeted by Western sanctions. But of course, neither the war nor the sanctions were as severe as is the case right now. So, it appeared that Russia did not want to help the West cross a major security concern off its plate, and in the process, reduce global energy prices by bringing Iranian oil back to the market. For this reason, Russia sought to delay or completely derail the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
There are statements that Russia has received written guarantees, but these are again related to the nuclear cooperation part of this agreement. It's not the broad guarantees that Russia was after. This could potentially signal that Russia has backed off from its demands, and therefore one of the last obstacles to finalizing the restoration of the JCPOA is now removed.
Has Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed Moscow's strategic interests in regard to the JCPOA?
Russia's grand strategy has not changed in the sense that in the medium-to-long run, Russia neither wants Iran to be bombed nor wants Iran to have the bomb—because either a conflict in Russia's "near abroad," and especially a U.S. military intervention in Russia's backyard, is obviously not in Russia's interest. But also, Iran getting nuclear weapons capability is potentially destabilizing for Russia, because it could start a domino effect with countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also pursuing their own nuclear capabilities—and that doesn't benefit Russia.
So I don't think Russia's medium-to-long-term strategy has changed, but in the short run, it did not want the West to be able to reap the benefits of reviving the JCPOA. However, what Russia did not foresee was the backlash that this created inside Iran. This was in two ways. First, I think there was a sense of anger and frustration within the Iranian public that Russia is taking Iran down with it and depriving 85 million Iranians from getting sanctions relief, only because Russia itself is now sanctioned as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. Second, there was also a sense of deep disappointment and anger at the Iranian government for failing to point fingers at Russia. The Islamic Republic was born on the promise of pursuing an independent foreign policy. The motto that is at the doorstep of the Iranian Foreign Ministry says, "Neither the East nor the West." It appeared that increasingly Iran was tilting toward the East and could not even dare to defy Russia for unreasonable demands that go way beyond the four corners of the JCPOA.
Remember that the nuclear deal with Iran offers sanctions relief to Iran in return for nuclear restrictions and rigorous monitoring. It does not offer the same kind of privileges to other participants who might have been sanctioned as a result of policies that have nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program. And I think that might be the reason that Russia has now calculated that at the end of the day, damaging its relations with Iran is not worth the short-term benefits of obstructing the JCPOA's restoration.
Right before Russia came up with its demands for security guarantees that they can do business with Iran after a nuclear agreement, Iranian officials said that there are outstanding issues related to sanctions and other things that are still on the table and that it's up to the U.S. to resolve those issues. What are those issues? Is removing the Revolutionary Guards or Iran's Supreme Leader from the sanctions list one of them?
There were some differences over the scope of sanctions relief, but they appeared close to completion, because it was clear after 10 months of negotiations that some of these issues don't have a middle-ground solution. In that sense, this was not a matter of additional negotiation or finding innovative ideas, but rather a question of which side is willing to accept that the ideal solutions are not in the cards, and that they should not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
Of course, sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader's office are difficult and sensitive issues for the Iranians. Leaving out the main decision-makers in Iran from sanctions relief, and accepting an official branch of the Iranian government would be considered by the United States as a terrorist organization, are non-starters. For the U.S., removing these two entities is politically costly, even though it is crystal clear that the record of the past three years during which these entities have been designated is an absolute failure. There has been no change in Iran's policy across the board as a result of these sanctions—neither the human rights situation in Iran nor Iran's regional policies improved in any way. So these sanctions, in practice, are abject failures. But, nevertheless, removing them would have a political backlash that the Biden administration wants to avoid. I think that without the last-minute Russian obstructionist demands, it would have been possible for both sides to bridge these differences and restore the agreement by the end of the first week of March. But right now, it all depends on what Russia's position is and if Russia indeed takes a step back, then it is possible for Iran and the U.S. to compromise on these final issues and agree to a pathway for mutual return to compliance.
On the human rights sanctions on Iran, has the U.S. accepted to remove some of them that have nothing to do with the nuclear deal? And does this make the agreement vulnerable to a review by Congress? If these sanctions are not related to Iran's nuclear program, it would be a new agreement and therefore Congress would have to review the agreement, which I think the Biden administration has been trying to avoid all along.
My understanding is that human rights-related sanctions are not affected by this agreement, which is only going to lift sanctions that are related to Iran's nuclear program, and those sanctions that specifically undermine the effect of JCPOA sanctions relief. Human rights sanctions don't fit into this category. Now, there is confusion out there on the pretext that was used to issue some of these sanctions. For instance, the Trump administration chose to sanction the current president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, who at the time was the head of the judiciary, because of his association with the Supreme Leader's office. And shockingly, they failed to designate him for his role in the massacre of political prisoners in the late 1980s, or his role in the clampdown on protesters in 2018 and 2019, when he headed the judiciary. And if indeed sanctions on the Supreme Leader's office are lifted, Raisi would also be de-listed, but that doesn't mean human rights-related sanctions are coming off. These are technical issues and sometimes difficult for laypeople to follow all the details, and that creates space for misinformation. But the reality is that U.S. policy is not to de-list any individuals or entities that have had a hand in violations of human rights or in acts of terrorism. And some sanctions that might be lifted under this agreement could be reimposed based on future behavior of these individuals and entities.
Now, in any scenario, it appears likely that Congress would have to review the agreement negotiated in Vienna. The reason is that there are already changes in realities on the ground because of Iran's advancements of its nuclear program in the past three years and basically all the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program removed by the Trump administration. The changed reality on the ground required innovative solutions in this agreement that are likely to meet the threshold of triggering the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, and so the Biden administration is likely, if there's a deal in Vienna, to submit it to congressional review. That is a 35-day process in which the president has five days to submit the deal to Congress, and Congress has 30 days to review and vote on the agreement. Now, if Democrats have 41 votes, they can get cloture on the debate in the Senate and prevent a resolution of disapproval from being voted upon. But even if that doesn't happen, and there is a joint resolution of disapproval in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, the president can veto it and then there is a need to have 34 Democratic votes to prevent the president's veto from being overridden by Congress. And so, in any case, I don't think Congress can really stop this agreement from being implemented.
If I were Iran, I would name a cascade of centrifuges after Donald Trump, or John Bolton, or Mike Pompeo, because it is thanks to them and the policy they implemented, which unleashed Iran's nuclear program.
- Ali Vaez
Earlier this week, 49 Republican senators wrote a letter criticizing the talks. They mention that the new agreement would be much weaker than the 2015 agreement and that it doesn't "completely block" Iran's ability to develop a nuclear weapon. How would such Republican opposition in the Senate endanger the deal if it's signed?
This is not a surprise at all. Not a single Republican voted for the JCPOA in 2015 because the criteria for upholding the agreement was basically a third plus-one vote. The Obama administration had the required support of more than one-third of Democrats in the Senate and could uphold the agreement. The same now applies to the Biden administration where, as I said, you either need 34 votes to protect a presidential veto, or 41 votes to even prevent a resolution of disapproval, and that level of support already exists in the Senate without any Republican support at all.
The reality is, the Republicans had four years when they had total control of Congress and the executive branch and they failed to better the agreement. Their policy of preference, which was "maximum pressure," was given ample time to prove whether it can produce a better agreement. It not only did not; it also made the situation worse. Basically, Iran came closer than ever to the verge of nuclear weapons thanks to maximum pressure. If I were Iran, I would name a cascade of centrifuges after Donald Trump, or John Bolton, or Mike Pompeo, because it is thanks to them and the policy they implemented, which unleashed Iran's nuclear program. Iran could make advancements that under the JCPOA would not have been possible for another decade. I think the Republicans are obviously politicizing this issue, but the reality is that they have no ground to stand on given the record of their policy of preference, which is nothing but an abject failure.
What are the implications of removing the Revolutionary Guards from the sanctions list for the Biden administration? Due to the IRGC's regional conduct, this would allow them to expand what they do in the region.
Without any doubt, it would cause a political backlash, but one that is rooted in politics and not in reality, because the very fact that there are concerns about the Revolutionary Guards' regional behavior is a testament to the fact that sanctions have not worked. Otherwise, there would be evidence of either tempered Iranian behavior, or more constraints on the Revolutionary Guards' ability to project power in the region. None of that is true. And that is the clearest evidence that one can get of the failure of these sanctions.
But, having said this, removing the foreign terrorist designation does not mean that the multilayered sanctions regime against the Revolutionary Guards is coming off. The Guards are also designated as a "specially designated terrorist group" by the Treasury Department, and there are layers of executive order sanctions and legislative sanctions targeting the Guards. So they would not get a get-out-of-jail-free card. But removing this particular designation that has targeted millions of innocent Iranians who have served as conscripts in the Revolutionary Guards, I think it's something that should be considered by policymakers in the U.S. because there is no justification whatsoever for considering these innocent Iranians who have just done their mandatory military service as terrorists. It's completely unjustified. Yes, this would be a political football, without any doubt, but I think the Biden administration should have its priorities clear. Is the priority to put Iran's nuclear program back in a box and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Or is the priority to keep sanctions on the books that have had no impact whatsoever on the Revolutionary Guards' behavior?
Israel and some other countries in the region believe that even by signing a deal, Iran in a few years would be able to continue its nuclear program and gain the capability to reach a point where they could build a nuclear bomb. How strong is this agreement, and what are the restrictions that it creates on Iran's nuclear program? What do you think about these claims that it's just a temporary measure?
There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there about what this agreement would achieve. The reality is that right now, with no constraints on Iran's nuclear program, the break-out time—which is the time that it takes for Iran to enrich enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon—is two weeks. And this is compared to the 12 months break-out time that existed when President Trump walked into the Oval Office. And the break-out time is shrinking by the day.
Now, what the restored JCPOA does is that it extends the break-out time to more than six months. For sure, it's not as good as the original agreement, but this is because the U.S. voluntarily abdicated on restrictions that existed on Iran's research and development, and in the past three years Iran has made advances that are irreversible.
But, having said this, the JCPOA would restore the most rigorous monitoring mechanism that exists on any nuclear program anywhere in the world. Plus, the most important restrictions in the JCPOA, which are on the limits on the size of Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium and the level of enrichment—they will come off only in 2031. The restored JCPOA will basically guarantee that, with the rigorous monitoring and nuclear restrictions that exist, Iran would not be able to develop nuclear weapons for another nine years. And that is not a benefit that could be easily overlooked, especially given the situation that we are in right now, that is completely unsustainable.
Iran has lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency a few times over the past few years, and there is one concern that Iran might pursue some of its nuclear activities behind closed doors and in places that the IAEA is not aware of. What do you think about these claims and concerns?
There are now differences between Iran and the IAEA in questions related to traces of nuclear material that have been found at three different undeclared sites in Iran. But there's also a roadmap that has been negotiated between the two to try to resolve these issues by the IAEA's board meeting in June. And, of course, Iran's responsibility as a Non-Proliferation Treaty member state is to account for every single gram of uranium that exists in the country. That issue, without any doubt, would have to be resolved. But once the JCPOA is restored, the IAEA will have enhanced access to every part of Iran's nuclear program; every single gram of uranium, from cradle to grave, would be under IAEA monitoring. The IAEA would have access to the recordings of its cameras at nuclear facilities to which it had lost access as a result of Iran's withdrawal from the additional protocol. And all sites in Iran, whether declared or not, would be accessible to the U.N. inspectors. There is no better monitoring mechanism than the one that is devised under the JCPOA, and once the deal is restored, I have no concerns—as was the case prior to Trump's withdrawal—that the IAEA would have access to all sites in Iran and would be able to monitor all declared and undeclared activities. There would be no possibility for Iran to pursue a clandestine nuclear enrichment program.
Some people are concerned that Iran would take the U.S. "hostage" with this deal. For example, if the U.S. goes after Iran to sanction institutions or individuals for Iran's ballistic missile program or regional activities, then those sanctions would be against the spirit of the deal, or would somehow curb Iran's privileges guaranteed in the nuclear agreement. Is it the case that it would become harder for the U.S. to go after other issues with Iran if this deal is signed?
Look, for sure one can envision that there would be differences between Iran and the U.S. once the deal's implementation begins, and there will be differences in interpretation, for sure. But what would uphold the agreement is a balance of interests, in a sense, that Iran would probably think twice before it takes steps in the region that could potentially render it vulnerable to reimposition of sanctions. And the U.S. would also think twice before it implements additional sanctions, lest they would undermine the implementation of the JCPOA. And that is completely normal, but as was the case under the Obama administration, the U.S. never considered the JCPOA as a tool for disarming it from using sanctions on other areas of difference between Iran and the U.S. And Iran, despite its threats that it would draw from the JCPOA if there was even a single infringement of sanctions by the U.S., remained in the deal even one year after the U.S. withdrew from the agreement. So as long as the balance of interest is there, and the alternatives of the proper implementation of the JCPOA are much less attractive for both sides, then I believe it is possible for both sides to keep the deal alive despite differences in interpretation of the agreement.
The reality is that Iran would want economic stability. It does not want a situation in which the sanctions relief seems unstable and the specter of sanction "snap-back" is constantly deterring businesses from engaging the Iranian market and investing in Iran. And so, this is not a blank check to Iran to pursue the policies that are problematic in the eyes of the West. But at the same time, without addressing those issues, there's always the possibility of spillover of those tensions into the implementation of the agreement. One thing that is now fundamentally different compared to 2016, when the deal was first implemented, is the regional context in which Iran's neighbors in the Persian Gulf have clearly understood that a no-deal situation does not advance their interests and in fact even poses a greater threat to their safety and security. For this reason, there is a possibility that the reimplementation of the deal could happen in conjunction with the kind of dialogue in the region that could result in de-escalation, and therefore the reasons for concern about Iran's regional policies could be diminished. But this also requires a decision in Tehran to engage in diplomacy with the country's neighbors and pursue de-escalatory policies.
Is there any chance that in the next few days, in light of the outstanding issues between the U.S. and Iran, that the talks fail?
I have a hard time imagining that the U.S. and Iran have come this far, and have been able to overcome so many differences, only to allow the talks' collapse over some remaining areas of disagreement. My sense is this deal that has been negotiated in Vienna is now too big to fail. And if indeed the Russian obstacles are removed, I think it is quite likely that the deal could be finalized in a matter of days.
If Iran decides to help Russia in overcoming the sanctions that the U.S. and Western countries have imposed for its invasion of Ukraine, how would it affect the nuclear deal?
I doubt that Iran would really be able to throw a lifeline to Russia. The trade between the two countries is a small part of their trade balance with the outside world. Iran's economy itself is going to struggle to be able to reconnect given the fact that it is still on the Financial Action Task Force blacklist. Russia has other options for trying to circumvent Western sanctions; Iran is not necessarily the best bridge for Russia to achieve that objective. But the same principle that I explained before applies in this scenario as well, which is that both sides are going to be careful in calculating what kind of policies risk endangering the diplomatic achievement that they have had in Vienna. It would be reckless for Iran to try to go around, push the envelope too far, to try to help Russia skirt Western sanctions, because its own economy is in need of stability. And as I said, if they get sanctions relief and pursue policies that would constantly destabilize the impact of sanctions relief, it's basically a very short-sighted approach. We'll have to wait and see, but I don't think it's a major threat to the deal's implementation.
Israel has been very critical of these talks, and it would not respect or abide by a deal that the U.S. would sign with Iran. How could Israel's attempts to sabotage Iran's nuclear program impact the stability of a restored JCPOA?
It appears at times that Israel's concern is more about Iranian enrichment than uranium enrichment. The reality is that with that kind of approach, there is no deal that would ever satisfy Israel's demands. As we have seen from the consensus among former Israeli security and intelligence officials, the JCPOA had made Israel safer and withdrawal from the deal did not really benefit Israel's security at all. In fact, some former Israeli officials have called that decision a strategic mistake—and it's absolutely true. I doubt that Israel would challenge its closest ally by continuing to pursue sabotage of Iran's nuclear facilities, especially in a situation that with the restored agreement, Iran's nuclear activities would be significantly curbed and its facilities would be again under daily visits from U.N. nuclear inspectors.
But that does not mean that the cold war between Iran and Israel on all other fronts is not going to escalate. We have already seen tit-for-tat between Iran and Israel in the maritime realm, as well as in the cybersphere, and also in the region, be it Iran going after Israeli interests in Iraq, or Israel going after Iranian interests in Syria. And this, I think, poses the greatest risk to the stability of the reimplemented JCPOA, because there is plenty of space for miscalculation and uncontrolled escalation. But this requires both Iran and Israel to take a step back from the dangerous trajectory that they're currently on. For now, there is no sign that indicates that they are moving in the direction of de-escalation, and in fact, the opposite seems to be the case.
What are the implications of a nuclear deal for countries in the region, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia?
I think the best way of understanding how the region benefits from the JCPOA is to consider the alternative, which is that, first of all, as a result of maximum pressure, Iran became more aggressive in the region and we saw the kind of spectacular attacks like the one on Saudi Aramco facilities, and the targeting of shipping lanes in the past few years that were highly destabilizing for the region. If the deal is not restored, there is the prospect of military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. or Israel, which is a conflict that could easily turn into a regional conflagration, which would affect every country in the region at a time where there is a need for economic recovery post-COVID.
This would be disastrous really for all sides. But the restoration of the JCPOA at least removes one key concern from the list of regional issues to deal with. It provides space for additional diplomacy that could be conducted at the regional level, both to try to build on the JCPOA and bring about regional arrangements that could address the concerns of future proliferation of the region, and to address the ongoing conflicts that have remained unresolved, including the one in Yemen. But, again, this requires a constructive approach from all sides that this time, unlike in 2016, sees the restoration of the JCPOA as mutually beneficial, rather than a zero-sum outcome that only benefits one side.