Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Moscow on Tuesday in a bid to convince Russia to drop its call for relief from sanctions imposed over the war in Ukraine.
This demand has stalled efforts to rescue the 2015 nuclear agreement, dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which limits Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on Iran. Russia plays a key role in the implementation of the JCPOA.
Mr Amir-Abdollahian expressed the hope that his visit would recommit Russia to a “good, stable and strong nuclear deal”.
Following the talks, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had received written US assurances that sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine would not hinder co-operation within the framework of the deal.
“We continue to engage with Russia on a return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” a senior US state department official said when asked about Mr Lavrov’s comments.
Moscow initially called for guarantees that sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine would not prevent Russia from performing its duties under the JCPOA. These duties include importing enriched uranium from Iran’s stockpile, providing nuclear fuel for Iran’s Bushehr power plant and research reactor, and converting Iran’s Fordow enrichment plant into a research facility. The US had argued sanctions would not interfere with Russia’s role in implementing the JCPOA.
Subsequently, Mr Lavrov attempted to exert leverage on JCPOA signatories and the US to grant exemption from sanctions that would damage Russia’s “right to free and full trade, economic and investment co-operation, and military-technical co-operation” with Iran. The US has rejected this demand as having no relevance to the JCPOA.
The impasse has prompted EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell to pause talks on rescuing the nuclear deal, although he declared a "final text is essentially ready and on the table".
Before the Ukraine war, Moscow's envoy Mikhail Ulyanov played a key role in mediating the 11-month Vienna negotiations, but Russia now fears the return of Iran's oil supplies to markets as a result of eased sanctions could reduce customers' reliance on Russia's exports of 5 million barrels a day.
During the 18 months the JCPOA was in force, Iran exported 2 million barrels a day.
US Quincy Institute head Trita Parsi argued that, by delaying reviving the JCPOA, Moscow shows it "has the ability to harm the United States by delaying the agreement at a crucial point of Washington's vulnerability to high oil prices".
If the impasse persists, original signatories Germany, France, Britain and the US could press for JCPOA finalisation and implementation without Russia, although this could be opposed by fellow signatories and Russia's allies China and Iran. This explains why Mr Amir-Abdollahian is eager to reach an arrangement with Moscow now.
Iran is under strong domestic pressure to find an end to sanctions which have stymied economic growth and produced unemployment, inflation and rising poverty.
Before the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed 1,500 sanctions on Iran in 2018, oil exports amounted to 18 per cent of its GDP and one-quarter of government revenues. Following the US withdrawal, Iran in 2019 began to breach JCPOA provisions, including by enriching uranium to higher levels than allowed and curtailing UN inspections.
Tehran could expect the JCPOA’s revival to end Israel’s alleged sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would be under strict UN monitoring. The Iranian minister’s visit to Moscow coincided with an accusation by Tehran that its Revolutionary Guards foiled an Israeli attempt to target the Fordow plant.