Will reverberations of Russia’s Ukraine invasion reach the Vienna nuclear talks?

Degree of Putin’s frustration with US opposition to his incursion will dictate whether he prioritizes deal to prevent nuclearized neighbor over effort to push back against the West

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

TV cameras in front of the 'Grand Hotel Vienna,' where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)
TV cameras in front of the 'Grand Hotel Vienna,' where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

The Israeli government has made clear through its tepid and seemingly contradictory responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that this is a war it desperately would rather avoid, as it pits two allies and the interests they represent against one other.

But a deeper reason behind the Israeli preference for a swift diplomatic solution to end the Russia-Ukraine conflict is that it would allow for global attention to return to Vienna where world powers are believed to be on the verge of signing another diplomatic agreement in a deal seen as far more consequential to Jerusalem’s interests — a joint US-Iran return to compliance with the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said as much earlier this month in an interview with the Walla news site when asked about the then still-brewing tensions between Moscow and Kyiv.

“It disturbs us significantly as it draws the focus away from the nuclear talks in Vienna where we would like to have much more American attention to prevent dangerous things from happening there,” he said.

At the time, Lapid was optimistic that a military conflict could be avoided. But now that Russia has chosen the path of war, Jerusalem may be forced to recalculate whether an emboldened Moscow — one further at odds with the West than in recent memory — will approach in the same way a joint agreement with those same Western powers aimed at preventing a nuclear Iran.

Relatedly, a Russia that has no qualms putting Western threats to the test could well lead to an Iran that has less of a problem doing the same by hardening its own negotiating stance in Vienna.

Washington-based Middle East experts who spoke with The Times of Israel said that Russia’s interest in preventing another nuclear power on its southern periphery will remain, regardless of how its invasion of Ukraine unfolds.

However, that interest may be eclipsed by a reticence to give the US and its allies a win, just as they are banding against Moscow with an unprecedented sanctions campaign. Moreover, the analysts explained that while Tehran may now be enticed to embolden its position at risk of dooming the nuclear accord for good, the Islamic Republic would be wise to take note of the growing reality that they will be met with an opposition in the West that is more unified than ever before.

This is not the first time a Russian incursion into Ukraine has risked upending Iran nuclear talks. Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea came as the same groupings of world powers were working to negotiate the original JCPOA. Then, those players managed to insulate the negotiations from the deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow and still signed the accord a year later.

But then-US president Donald Trump vacated that agreement in 2018 and imposed a maximum pressure sanctions campaign that led to Iran increasingly violating its commitments to the JCPOA.

From a more emboldened Russia to a more hardline Iran to a less patient Washington, the parties are clearly in different places today than they were when Putin last moved his forces en-masse into Ukrainian territory.

Smoke and flame rise near a military building after an apparent Russian strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

An opening for Iran-Russia relations?

“It would be inconceivable [to think] that the events unfolding in Ukraine don’t have spillover onto the other challenges facing the Biden administration, particularly one like the JCPOA talks that engage Russia and the United States in a very direct and close-up way,” said Suzanne Maloney, who serves as vice president and director of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program.

There hasn’t been talk of negotiators leaving Vienna since this week’s invasion began, and the fact that the US is not negotiating directly with Iran creates likely-needed space between Washington and the other world powers that are negotiating directly with Iran, namely Moscow.

“But the Iranian response to the invasion itself is likely to reinforce the high price that it has been demanding” in order for it to return to compliance with the accord, which offers Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program, Maloney argued.

Indeed, the respective readouts from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi as well as Tehran’s Thursday statement blaming the NATO Western security alliance for starting the Ukraine conflict points to a united front being built by Moscow and Tehran against the other signatories of the JCPOA.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, right, talk to each other during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

This likely tempts Iran to complicate the Vienna negotiations, under the pretext that Russia has its back, or even to walk away from a diplomatic solution entirely as Moscow did by invading Ukraine.

But Hussein Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said evidence thus far has not suggested a weakened West, rather one that is more “reunified and strengthened following this attack.”

For her part, Maloney said Putin’s military offensive should serve as a “cautionary tale, rather than an encouragement to further recalcitrance.”

She referenced Soviet invasions of Iranian territory in just the last century, and argued that “there’s no historical sense of confidence or trust between the Iranians and Russians.”

Even in Syria, where more recent Russian intervention on the Assad regime’s behalf has allowed for Iranian proxies to operate close to Israel’s northern border, it’s been clear that the interests there are not identical, as Moscow has also allowed Israeli jets to regularly venture out into that airspace in order to target those same proxies.

So while Moscow’s determination to upend regional order and diminish Washington’s standing may give reason for Iran to assume that times are changing, the latter’s distant and recent history with Russia should lead the Islamic Republic to avoid aligning itself too closely with the Kremlin, Maloney warned.

Will Russia’s position change?

As for Russia, Maloney wasn’t convinced that it is interested in playing spoiler in Vienna either.

“They don’t want a nuclear-armed state on their southern periphery,” she said. “They’ve got enough instability to be concerned about. That’s why Russia remained a positive and constructive actor in the negotiations that led to the 2015 deal.”

Ibish said Moscow has continued to play a constructive role in the latest nuclear talks as well.

Because while both the US-led Western front on the one hand and the Iranians on the other must avoid sounding overly optimistic about the prospect for a deal in order to avoid weakening their negotiating positions and exposing themselves to criticism back home, Moscow has injected a steady dose of confidence into the public discourse, thereby bringing the sides closer together, Ibish argued.

“You need a third party, which is the role Russia is playing now, to offer the positive [sentiment] to keep the momentum going,” he said, adding that Moscow continuing in that capacity would be critical in the home stretch of the Vienna talks.

But Ibish admitted that the Western response to Russia’s invasion may lead Putin to disrupt the delicate division of labor between JCPOA negotiators.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, and Deputy Secretary-General and Political Director of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Enrique Mora stand in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Because while it is indeed Russia’s interest for the JCPOA to be restored, the deal is much more important to the US, the AGSIW scholar said.

“The Russians could easily ask themselves, ‘Why would we be the ones to do the heavy lifting when we’re getting [all of this] opposition to our [aggression]?'” Ibish speculated, adding that Russia may choose to “subordinate its JCPOA interests in favor of a broader confrontation with the West.”

“They may say to themselves, ‘The West needs the JCPOA deal more than we do, and we are in a position to complicate it for them, so we’re going to stop cooperating.'”

In a subsequent response to a query on the matter, a US State Department spokesman told The Times of Israel, “We are in the final stages of a complex negotiation with key stakeholders, including Russia and China, who share a common interest along with our European partners in ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. ”

Iranian exiles and supporters of monarchy shout slogans during a demonstration near the Coburg palace during a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, on December 3, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

“While there has been significant progress and we are close to a possible deal, a number of very difficult issues remain unresolved,” the spokesperson added.

For his part, Russia’s Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov told The Times of Israel that Moscow “is convinced that there is no reasonable alternative to the JCPOA.”

“We are trying to help Washington and Tehran to find the right solution,” he said. “As of today, the talks have reached an advanced stage. Notwithstanding all the circumstances, we hope the negotiations will be completed soon.”

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