Which “external factors” might have spooked the European Union from the return of the Iran deal they pushed over the last five years? Vladimir Putin certainly counts among them. But does Joe Biden as well?
Whatever the cause, the sudden stop in momentum toward an agreement came as a surprise:
The European Union foreign policy chief has said that talks in Vienna to resurrect the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and global powers should be paused because of “external factors”.
“A pause in #ViennaTalks is needed, due to external factors,” said Josep Borrell on Twitter on Friday at the end of a week in which western officials had hoped a deal would be announced. The Islamic republic has been in indirect talks with the US, brokered by the EU, for the past 11 months.
“A final text is essentially ready and on the table,” added Borrell. “As coordinator, I will, with my team, continue to be in touch with all . . . participants and the US to overcome the current situation and to close the agreement.”
The fact that this pause came out of the EU seems rather significant, especially since it looked as though Biden and his team was sprinting toward a complete capitulation. Former State Department official Gabriel Noronha has tried to get Congress involved by publishing leaks from within the negotiations passed along by his career contacts at Foggy Bottom in an effort to stall the surrender. It was going so well for Russia, Iran, and China that Putin’s interlocutor openly bragged about it last week to reporters:
Shocking video: This is the lead Russian negotiator for the Iran nuclear talks, Mikhail Ulyanov.
He’s bragging about how Russia, Iran, and China teamed up to deliver huge wins for Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna negotiations. pic.twitter.com/oiTOgfh99i
— POLARIS (@polarisnatsec) March 6, 2022
“Iran got much more than it could expect. Much more … Our Chinese friends were also very efficient and useful as co-negotiators.”
Remarkably, though, the EU didn’t balk at Ulyanov’s brag. Instead, the issue is likely Sergei Lavrov’s eleventh-hour demand that the new Iran deal allow Russia to sell and purchase oil through Tehran. At that, the EU and the US finally said nyet:
Eleven months of talks to restore the deal which lifted sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme have reached their final stages.
But last Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unexpectedly demanded sweeping guarantees that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine – a demand Western powers say is unacceptable and Washington has insisted it will not agree to. …
Tehran on Thursday suggested there were new obstacles to reviving the deal. Washington underlined that it had no intention of accommodating Russia’s demands, which it has said have nothing to do with the Iran talks.
Why did Lavrov toss this wrench into the works at the last minute? Putin likely foresaw oil-related sanctions coming down the pike at some point and thought the Iran deal would be too valuable to scuttle for the EU and Biden. Instead, the West started to squeeze on oil, albeit incrementally at first, and made it clear that it wouldn’t provide Russia with an escape valve even to get the really bad deal with Iran that Western nations want for some reason.
However, one has to wonder whether the EU might have lost some confidence in Biden’s negotiating team after the Ulyanov brag a week ago. Robert Malley leads the US team, a notoriously anti-Israel figure that has circled around Democratic administrations since the 1990s. Alert readers will recall that Barack Obama had to fire Malley from the 2008 campaign after his meetings with Hamas came to light, only to formally rehire him in 2014 to handle Middle East relations … including, presumably, the negotiations that led to the first Iran deal in 2015. And we already know that Malley’s work on this deal had produced not just no results before now but also a resignation in apparent protest to Malley’s approach to the Iranians in 2021.
The EU wants trade with Iran, but they don’t want a nuclear Iran as a result. One has to wonder whether the US might have already given away too much. Scratch that — Noronha’s contacts already establish that point. The question is whether it’s too much even for the EU to swallow — and whether they’re worried that Biden’s desperate enough for the Iran deal that he might capitulate on Russia’s sanctions evasion as well as Iran’s.