Nuclear deal critics see fresh warning signs in Tehran-Moscow collaboration

Nuclear deal critics see fresh warning signs in Tehran-Moscow collaboration

Critics of a revived nuclear deal with Iran say Russia is actively exploiting the Biden administration‘s ardent desire to clinch a deal, using the war in Ukraine in part to distract the world from Tehran’s illicit nuclear weapons activities and to secure major sanctions relief for the Iranian regime.

Negotiators for the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France are widely believed to be in the final stages of a potential revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, negotiated by President Obama and repudiated three years later by President Trump. The deal broadly would lift many punishing U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran‘s economy and its trading partners after Mr. Trump withdrew in exchange for reinstated curbs on Tehran’s suspect nuclear programs.

While the talks have stalled in recent days over last-minute demands from Moscow, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Wednesday that he believes Russia and Iran are conspiring to get new concessions from Mr. Biden and his negotiating team.

Iran is simply looking for any excuse to drag out talks while it continues to advance its dangerous nuclear program,” Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, told a virtual gathering of lawmakers organized Wednesday by the Iranian dissent-led Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC). He said Tehran’s refusal to condemn Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine is telling.

“The Iranian regime remains one of the few countries to vocally back Russia‘s completely unprovoked and devastating invasion of Ukraine,” he said, adding that “Russia is now leveraging its role in the talks in Vienna to again redirect attention away from the very real and immediate threat of Iran‘s nuclear program.”

In an unusual twist of bipartisanship, Mr. Menendez’s assertions dovetailed with comments by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, who warned the Biden administration is falling into a trap set by Moscow and Tehran to extract sanctions relief from Washington.

“President Joe Biden wants nothing more than to create a new nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime that is even weaker than the catastrophic 2015 deal, even if it means surrendering to both [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Cruz told the OIAC event Wednesday.

“The Biden administration wants to sanction Putin on the one hand, while simultaneously giving him a financial lifeline through an Iran deal on the other,” said Mr. Cruz, who added that “Republicans will block the terrible deal and the next Republican president will tear up whatever’s left of it on Day One in 2025.”

The agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been in disarray since 2018 when Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of it. Critics said the original deal had included too many loopholes and did nothing to constrain Iran‘s ballistic missile programs or its support for anti-U.S. and anti-Israel allies around the Middle East.  

The Biden administration has pushed for months to restore the agreement and the announcement of a breakthrough and a slacking of sanctions seemed imminent last week. But the push has stalled during recent days amid blowback from the Ukraine crisis, with Russia — one of the many parties of the original 2015 deal — introducing new demands that have appeared to derail the talks.

U.S. officials claimed Moscow was threatening to block the restoration of the deal unless the Biden administration guaranteed that recent sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine won’t prevent Russian firms from engaging in future nuclear-related trade with Iran, once JCPOA sanctions on Tehran are lifted.

According to Reuters, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed Tuesday that Russia‘s objections have been met. Mr. Lavrov made the announcement after meeting Tuesday with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in Moscow.

The Biden administration has offered little clarity on the issue. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday that the “JCPOA is not going to be an escape hatch for the Russian Federation and the sanctions that have been imposed on it because of the war in Ukraine.”

At the same time, however, Mr. Price said that the administration “of course, would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA.”

“We can’t and we won’t and we have not provided assurances beyond that to Russia,” he said.  

The hedged diplomatic rhetoric appeared only to harden bipartisan concerns in Congress. Mr. Menendez said he has personally “been outspoken about the threat of a nuclear armed Iran and have expressed serious concerns about the talks in Vienna to revive the deeply flawed JCPOA.”

By contrast, Mr. Amirabdollahian tweeted this week he was reassured by the “productive” meeting with Mr. Lavrov.

“Reassured that Russia remains onboard for the final agreement in Vienna,” he wrote. “More than ever, ball is in U.S. court to provide the responses needed for successful conclusion of the talks.”