A month after the signing of the Vienna agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran met in Moscow to discuss the actual implementation of the plan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: RIA Novosti

Even after jointly signing the historic agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the United States and Russia continue to engage in subtle diplomatic maneuverings that could impact the eventual implementation of the plan.

For example, at the August 17 press conference following talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented on U.S. accusations related to Russia’s relationship with Iran. 

In late July, says the U.S., Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, who is on the UN Security Council’s list of military and political officials banned from leaving Iran, paid a visit to Moscow. In addition, Washington announced that it suspects Russia of violating the UN sanctions regime against Iran. It threatened to raise in the UN Security Council the implications of General Soleimani’s alleged visit to the Russian capital.

However, Lavrov stated that Soleimani’s visit was just a "rumor." His deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, also raised the issue with Russian experts at the Center for Energy and Security Studies during a discussion of the prospects for implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program (INP). Ryabkov said that, “Soleimani did not come to Moscow.”

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Washington’s accusations are unlikely to jeopardize the plan to implement the Vienna agreement. The JCPOA will enter into force in 90 days following approval by the UN Security Council. But there are still opponents of the deal in Iran, the United States and elsewhere in the Middle East. That creates obstacles.

“Iran is home not only to moderates, but also spiritual leaders and institutions that oppose the deal and its possible consequences for the unaligned image of the regime,” said Yulia Sveshnikova, policy analyst at the Islamic Renaissance Front in Malaysia. 

“One problematic scenario is if opponents of the deal inside the political elite decide to stretch their nuclear ambitions slightly more than the agreement provides for, having naturally taken all necessary precautions in advance. We could well see provocation from outside with a view to accusing Iran of violating the agreement and to wrecking the deal. There are plenty of potential saboteurs, starting with Israel and the Gulf states, headed by Saudi Arabia.”

Looking ahead to the US vote on the Iran deal

One of the main tests for the document is to gain a future vote of approval in the U.S. Congress, where the Republican majority opposes the deal with Iran. 

Despite the intensity of the debate in the United States over the advisability of approving the JCPOA, Ryabkov is sure that the document adopted by the P5+1 and Iran is the only possible model for settling the long-standing and politicized issue of the Iranian nuclear program.

“The main trouble for opponents of the Vienna agreement is that they are finding it hard to collect materials to attack and criticize the document,” said Ryabkov. 

“In drafting the text of the JCPOA, we tried to avoid ambiguities and inaccuracies. Neither Iran nor the ‘six’ could allow the newly drafted document to be attacked by critics as vague and ambiguous.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry is not inclined to dramatize the upcoming vote on the INP in the U.S. Congress. Ryabkov remarked that, “Opponents will not be able to gather enough votes to outweigh a hypothetical presidential veto.”

The most important issue, in his diplomatic view, is how consistently and responsibly the United States and the European Union carry out the arrangements set out in the JCPOA.

At the same time Ryabkov expressed satisfaction that the JCPOA had been achieved in the summer of 2015 rather than the fall, when it would have been hampered by the official start of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

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Andrei Baklitsky, director of the “Nuclear Nonproliferation and Russia” program at the PIR Center for Policy Studies, believes that, “The deal on the Iranian nuclear program will be approved in the United States, since the Republicans do not have the required two-thirds majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives to overcome a presidential veto.”

The expert predicts what will happen in the U.S. Congress, which is due to vote by September 17.

“The Republicans will reject the deal. Obama will use his veto. And they will not be able to overcome it,” says Baklitsky.

Is the Iran deal good for Russia?

Russian diplomats and experts are still debating the question of how beneficial the Iran deal is for Moscow. 

In the run-up to reaching an agreement in Vienna, some commentators said that Russia had nothing to gain from it, especially with regard to oil prices, which will fall even further if sanctions are lifted from Tehran. But speaking at the Center for Energy and Security Studies, Ryabkov stated that such logic is groundless.

“If Russia had not taken part in the Iranian nuclear program talks, a deal with Tehran would have happened anyway, but perhaps on far worse terms for our country,” said Ryabkov. “Even assuming that Moscow could have boycotted the negotiations, the result would have been the same in terms of oil price dynamics — or even worse.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister also noted that, “Sanctions against Iran have not yet been lifted, and the country’s export potential cannot be restored in just a few months.” Besides, Iran’s oil refineries need to be upgraded and refitted with modern equipment.

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Ryabkov underscored that Russia’s main interests in the talks are to prevent a new conflict in the Middle East, normalize the situation in Iran by diplomatic means, and restore full-fledged cooperation with the country.

“The JCPOA strengthens the nuclear nonproliferation regime and confirms the Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons’ central position in the system of international security and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s role as the promoter of the peaceful atom,” said Ryabkov.

Moreover, Anton Khlopkov, director of the Center for Energy and Security, believes that, given Russia’s proximity to Iran’s borders, a diplomatic solution to the INP issue is the most effective method of conflict resolution.

Ryabkov also stated that going forward “Russia will not allow a single sanctions resolution against Iran through the UN Security Council.”

“At the turning point of 2011-2012, following the publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report in November 2011, the crisis was close to evolving from the political and diplomatic phase to the military phase,” Khlopkov told Russia Direct

“Back then it was feared that an accidental incident at sea between Iranian and Western naval forces could escalate the nuclear issue into a full-blown military crisis. That was not in Russia’s interests in light of the chaos that is gripping Middle East.”

Russia supports a WMD-free zone in the Middle East

After reaching the INP deal, Lavrov stated that, “The Iranian agreements create the preconditions to continue work to convene a conference on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.”

At the meeting in the Center for Energy and Security Studies, Ryabkov also said that Russia would continue to work in this direction and expressed hope that the deal with Iran would facilitate the process.

Until recently Iran has generally tried to avoid participating in consultations on convening such a conference. Now, when significant progress has been made on the Iranian problematic, Tehran could become an active player in support of convening it.

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Khlopkov notes that, “The initiative to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East belongs to Egypt and Iran, which proposed it back in 1974. Tehran had actually come up with the idea for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East even earlier. Given the historic importance of the matter for Iran, post-Vienna it could once again become an active lobbyist for the conference.”

What are the advantages of the Iranian nuclear deal for Russia?

Both the Kremlin and the White House prefer to focus on the benefits of the Vienna agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. 

In particular, Moscow and Tehran are in talks on how to remove eight metric tons of low-enriched uranium from the country. The removal of excess uranium from Iran is stipulated in accordance with the JCPOA on the Iranian nuclear program of July 14.

As for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) at the Arak heavy-water reactor (which under the Vienna agreement is also to be removed from Iran), Russia will not take it.

“Russia can accept SNF from reactors only of Soviet and Russian manufacture. Any other kind is forbidden by law,” underlined Ryabkov, speaking at the Center for Energy and Security Studies. He also believes that the upcoming U.S. Congress vote on the deal with Tehran will not be overwhelmingly negative.

The conversion of the Fordow plant and the production of stable isotopes for medical purposes (as per the JCPOA) are other areas of Russian-Iranian cooperation. The parties are in talks on cooperation at Fordow and discussing the timeline for bringing medical isotopes on stream.

“The time frame to the start of production is several years,” noted Ryabkov, who represented Russia in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

In accordance with the Vienna agreement, an international consortium will oversee the conversion of the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Its members are not yet known, but Moscow hopes that responsibility for converting the reactor will lie with the consortium.

Russia will participate in this process on equal terms with others, but, according to Ryabkov, “Because the reactor at Arak is not of Russian origin, Moscow should not be in charge of the operation.”

With respect to military-technical cooperation (MTC) with Iran, a permissive regime will exist for five years to replace the pre-JCPOA embargo. Supplies of arms to and from Iran that fall under one of the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms are to be approved by the UN Security Council.

“It is clear that there is an emergency brake, and states opposed to normal MTC with Iran can always use it. But using it is fraught with political costs and will require motivation and explanation,” summed up Ryabkov.