Russian invasion puts endgame of Iran nuclear talks in jeopardy

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine risks jeopardizing diplomacy to restore Iran’s nuclear deal at the final hurdle, as world powers at the negotiating table find themselves on opposite sides of Europe’s biggest security crisis since World War II.

Envoys have suggested a successful conclusion to the talks could be just days away after 10 months of stop-start progress in Vienna. But Iran and the US still have to bridge remaining key differences at a time when mediators in Europe and Russia have been plunged into conflict.

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Diplomats warned Tehran’s government publicly over the weekend that Iran needed to reach a swift decision on resurrecting the 2015 accord, which gave the Islamic Republic sanctions relief in exchange for reining in its nuclear activities.

“There are moments in time when a deal is possible and sometimes if you allow those moments to pass, the deal starts to drift away, often for reasons outside the control of the negotiators,” Irish Foreign and Defense Minister Simon Coveney told Iran’s top diplomat, Hossein Amirabdollahian, on Saturday at a security conference in Munich.

Speaking on behalf of the United Nations Security Council, where Ireland has been appointed facilitator of the Iran deal, Coveney said deteriorating relations between Russia -- a critical Iranian ally at the talks -- and the US risked imperiling the outcome.

“You could see a potential development that could all of a sudden make, what has been genuine progress in recent weeks in Vienna, become a much more difficult negotiation to conclude,” he said.

A deal returning Iran to energy markets could help tether oil prices which surged past $105 a barrel as fighting in Ukraine flared Thursday. Yet the conflict might give Iranian leaders reason to reconsider whether they need to compromise. They’ve already entered a security pact with Russia and China and committed toward turning the country’s economy east.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, flew back to his capital for consultations late Wednesday. Iran needs to decide on whether it will relent on its demand for guarantees that the deal won’t again be undercut. The US says it can’t promise that a future administration won’t scupper any agreement, as happened under the Trump administration four years ago.

Retaliating for reimposed US sanctions, Iran dramatically escalated its nuclear enrichment activities and how to roll back those advances has been another major hurdle for negotiators.

Amirabdollahian appeared to walk a diplomatic tightrope on Twitter as the scale of Russia’s attack became apparent, hitting out at NATO for provoking Moscow while rejecting war as a solution and calling for a ceasefire.

Both Russia and the US say they’ve worked together at the Iran nuclear talks and have been able to compartmentalize their other differences at the negotiating table. Moscow’s top negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, has frequently posted images of his meetings with his US counterpart, Rob Malley, on social media.

Restoring the nuclear accord could provide relief to oil markets, where the surge in crude has also been fueled by a recovery in demand as the pandemic recedes.

Iran was one of OPEC’s biggest crude producers before the US withdrawal, and many traders expect that if sanctions are lifted, it will be able to boost daily exports by about 1 million barrels within just a matter of months. Iran has the world’s No. 2 natural gas and No. 4 oil reserves.

An agreement in Vienna would also help calm the Gulf, where US sanctions and Iran’s expanding nuclear work have heightened tensions and fueled proxy wars in recent months. Now it’s war in Europe that looms over efforts to achieve a deal.

In Tehran, a top foreign-policy expert who’s been a vocal critic of the nuclear deal, predicted diplomats would be able to protect the talks from the deepening hostility between the US and Russia.

Sanctions imposed against the Kremlin in recent days means “the Russians have more reason to make sure the US pressure campaign policy toward Iran doesn’t work,” said Foad Izadi, associate professor at the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies.

Read more: ‘Significant progress’ seen in Vienna nuclear talks: Iran foreign ministry

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