In late December 2021 reports at Reuters indicated that the US and Russia were coordinating in the Iran deal talks.
“Top US and Russian officials for Iran have met in Vienna, a Russian envoy said on Wednesday, and delegates on both sides said Moscow and Washington were coordinating in a bid to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal,” the report said.
Central to this coordination is Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to talks on a possible new or reinvigorated Iran deal.
Russia’s role in the Iran nuclear talks matters because Russia appears to be front pointing the discussions. Russia is also a friend of Iran. This matters more than ever after Russia tore up the rule book on international order and invaded Ukraine, a country of 40 million, sending hundreds of thousands onto the roads as refugees, as Russia’s bombs rain down. With international order in tatters, Russia is swiftly leading the way on global chaos, designed to confront the US and usher in a new world order.
But the UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine shows Russia still has an uphill battle. It may have India and China abstaining on the vote, along with Pakistan and some other countries, but it is isolated. However, the fact that Iran, Syria and Iraq, countries that are all linked to Iran or Russia, voted either with Russia or abstained, shows that Russia is eyeing the Iranian issue in its calculations. Iran is also thinking this way.
Now let’s go back to December. Ulyanov wrote back then that he had met with the US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley.
They appeared to meet many times, according to tweets by Ulyanov. “Yet another very useful meeting with the US Special Envoy for Iran Mr. Robert Malley. We are definitely moving ahead at the Vienna Talks,” he wrote in February 2022.
The talks seemed amicable. Back in April 2021 the Moscow envoy had tweeted that “the Russian and the US delegations at the Vienna talks held useful bilateral consultations on issues related to US sanctions lifting and return of Iran to full compliance with its nuclear commitments under JCPOA.”
As Russia built up its forces around Ukraine’s borders in early February, the Russian delegation dealing with the Iran talks kept meeting with the Americans. One could read this as compartmentalized discussions. But one could also read this as Russia increasing its activity to lure the US into a situation where Moscow has leverage over the US on a new Iran deal.
What that means is that if Russia got the US to outsource its Iran policy, even in a small way, to Moscow, then Russia has a hold over the US and can subsequently blackmail the US team by linking the talks to the Ukraine crisis. Russia was moving its divisions into line in Crimea, north of the Donbas front and in Belarus to strike at Kyiv, as it continued hanging out with the Americans in relation to the Iran talks.
We don’t know the substance of the talks, or how many have happened between the US and Russian delegations, but it seems like a lot. Sometimes the Russian envoy comes by himself to the meetings, photos show, but usually he has at least two people with him.
As the Ukraine war unfolded, reports said that Iran’s president spoke to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on February 24. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “President Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. The president of Iran expressed understanding with respect to Russia’s security concerns caused by the destabilizing actions of the US and NATO.”
All this is happening at the same time. Russia is invading Ukraine, and Russia is talking to the Americans and Iranians in Vienna. And everyone is supposedly upbeat about the Iran talks – at least that is Russia’s messaging from late December to late February. Bizarrely, even though the war had broken out and US-Russia relations were supposedly ruptured and in a downward spiral, the US and Russia were still sharing a table to discuss the Iran talks. This is because Russia is in the room with the Iranians, and the Americans, ostensibly, are not. That means that it is the EU, China and Russia that talk to Iran. But why is the US so cozy with Russia on this issue?
The US is still seeking to “engage” with Russia. This is the foreign policy weasel word that basically means that no matter how bad a country is, it nevertheless needs to be appeased.
On February 25 US State Department spokesman Ned Price said US officials would now discuss with Russia only issues “fundamental to our national security interest.” But that means Iran.
“The fact that Russia has now invaded Ukraine should not give Iran the green light to develop a nuclear weapon,” Price said at the time.
It’s important to remember here that the US also told Russia not to invade Ukraine. Back on February 11, when the US was also meeting with the Russians on the Iran issue, the White House said that it was calling Western allies “to discuss our shared concerns about Russia’s continued buildup of military forces around Ukraine, and continued coordination on both diplomacy and deterrence.” Back in early February the US warned that up to 50,000 civilians could be killed if a war broke out.
OSTENSIBLY, THE Ukraine invasion and Iran talks are not linked. However, Iran’s aggression may be empowered by the war.
Iran already has a sense that no rules apply to its role in the Middle East. It used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia in 2019. It shot down a US drone. Using drones and mines, it has attacked ships in international waters. Using proxies in Iraq and Syria, it has attacked US forces. It runs guns, missiles and drones to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and Yemen. It has used drones to attack Israel. It has moved missiles to Syria and Iraq to threaten Israel. It empowers terrorist groups. It encourages Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and it has its proxies in Iraq target Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Given all of this, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and willingness to violate any kind of deal signed in Europe appear likely. It can read the tea leaves from the Ukraine war. What it may deduce is that while basically all of the international community condemns Russia, Iran still has powerful countries that matter that will empower its internationally illegal actions.
An INSS paper by Bat Chen Feldman and Galia Lavi, experts on Iran and China, respectively, published on February 21, noted that “the nuclear talks in Vienna are another forum for the ambitions of China and Russia to reinforce their status in the Middle East and in the world in general, as part of their efforts to position themselves as global powers.”
Russia doesn’t want the US to come away from the Iran deal talks getting anything that Washington wants. On the other hand, reports say that the US envoy in Vienna is giving away the store anyway.
The Ukraine war can change Russia’s calculations. But the attempt to lure the US into a false sense of security in the talks may also be part of the wider Russian plan. If there is such a plan, it would have to mean that Putin consulted with his envoy and foreign policy team. It’s unclear how much Sergei Lavrov and others knew before the invasion began.
There are reasons to be concerned. Gabriel Noronha, a former appointee at the US State Department who had worked on Iran issues during the Trump administration, noted on March 2 that colleagues have told him there are bad tidings from the talks. “What’s happening in Vienna is a total disaster,” one warned, he noted in a tweet. “The entire negotiations have been filtered and “essentially run” by Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov. The concessions and other misguided policies have led three members of the US negotiating team to leave.”
Ulyanov, meanwhile, is circumspect in his usually loquacious Twitter account. He retweeted a tweet about the NATO bombing of Serbia recently, apparently comparing that to the current attack on Ukraine to show the West is hypocritical in condemning Russia. Ulyanov is usually a bit more pugnacious and open in his views than just retweets. Back on February 26, in a spat with Richard Goldberg in which Goldberg asked whether the US would halt talks with the Russians about Iran, Ulyanov said “sounds familiar to me as a historian. Similar methods were used in the USSR. Some people in the West don’t recognize such universal principles as freedom of speech, freedom of choice or freedom of expression. They scribble denunciations as it was in the time of Stalin.”
Today there are very real questions about how Russia’s role in the Iran talks, and how the US decision to apparently coordinate with Russia on these talks, could be linked to Ukraine or Iran’s subsequent actions in the region.
Iran must feel, after Ukraine, that any constraints on its actions are now even more meaningless. The US saying that Iran doesn’t have a green light to develop a nuclear weapon rings hollow because the US also said Russia shouldn’t invade Ukraine. Iran will watch carefully how sanctions play out on Russia.
Russia may think that when it comes to the Iran deal, it has a hold over the EU and US, and that it might be able to play these cards to get some engagement with the West. Then Russia can play the “good cop” in Vienna and pretend that if only the West would listen to it on Ukraine, even as it bombs Kyiv, it could be a responsible country again.
In this logic, the US needs Moscow more than Moscow needs the US when it comes to Iran. Russia may see leverage. Iran may see a pathway to more nefarious behavior and blackmail when it comes to the Middle East. The US may see a way to save face in Vienna and not get distracted from the Ukraine war.•