Is Putin on a new mission to save the Iran nuclear deal?

July 26, 2020 - 21:55

TEHRAN - Russian President Vladimir Putin famously said on May 15, 2019 that he was no longer willing to play the role of firefighter to extinguish the fire the Americans lit by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. But now he is “very likely” to be on a new, firefighting mission to save the deal, a university lecturer tells the Tehran Times.

“We regret that the deal is falling apart… After the signing of the agreement Iran was and still is the world's most verifiable and transparent country in this sense… Iran is fulfilling all of its obligations… Russia is not a fire brigade. We cannot rescue everything that does not fully depend on us. We've played our part,” Putin said at the time.

However, Putin seems to be assuming a new role in preventing a total collapse of the deal after he received an “important message” from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on July 21. Last week, while Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was heading to Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left Tehran for Moscow to hold talks with high-ranking Russian officials.

Heading a big politico-economic delegation, al-Kadhimi visited Tehran on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss a variety of bilateral issues such as expanding the volume of border trade and deepening political and security ties. Rouhani called the prime minister’s visit a “turning point” in Iran-Iraq ties.  Zarif was remarkably absent from the Tehran talks.

He was on a visit to Moscow during which he delivered a message from Rouhani to Putin. At the end of his visit, Zarif said in tweet that he “delivered important message to President Putin,” and held “extensive talks” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on bilateral cooperation as well as regional and global coordination. According to Zarif, Iran and Russia had “identical views” on the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Two days after Zarif’s visit, President Putin and his American counterpart “thoroughly” discussed several “issues of strategic stability”, including Iran’s nuclear program, in a telephone call.

“The situation with the Iranian nuclear program was touched on. Both sides emphasized the need for a collective effort to maintain regional stability and the global nuclear non-proliferation regime,” the Kremlin said in a statement on Thursday.

The Kremlin also said that “both sides agreed to continue contacts at various levels,” adding that the conversation between Putin and Donald Trump was “constructive and substantive.”

Meanwhile, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to International organizations in Vienna, described the conversation as “very encouraging.”

“A very encouraging news. Not happens every day. The leaders of Russia and [the] U.S had an exchange of views on Iran-related issues. Both sides underlined the need for collective efforts to maintain stability in the region, as well as global regime of nuclear non- proliferation,” Tweeted Ulaynov on July 24.

The telephone call was Trump’s first phone conversation with Putin since last month, and it came days after the U.S. and some of its allies accused Russia of trying to hack coronavirus vaccine research. Trump last spoke to Putin in early June about this year’s Group of 7 summit. The call also came two days after Rouhani’s message was delivered to Putin by Zarif. The content of the message isn’t known yet, but Zarif said that the message was about the JCPOA and bilateral issues.

“During the talks with Putin, I have delivered the special message of the president [Rouhani] about the situation of the JCPOA and some bilateral issues to him [Putin],” Zarif told the IRIB news agency, after he returned from Russia.

The JACOA has been on life support since Donald Trump pulled his country out of it on May 8, 2018. The U.S. is also working to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which is scheduled to expire in October. While the European signatories to the deal –France, Germany and the UK- continue to send mixed signals on the arms embargo, Russia and China firmly oppose the U.S. efforts in this regard. Zarif has said that Russia has taken a “very appropriate stance” on the U.S. policies against the JCPOA. He also said that the JCPOA was one of the most important issues he discussed in Moscow.

Some analysts believe that the Russian president has begun a new effort to save the Iran nuclear deal after he received a message from Rouhani.

“It’s very likely that Putin is trying to save the JCPOA,” Omid Asiaban, a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Tehran and a university lecturer at the University of Birjand told the Tehran Times.

During his visit to Moscow, Zarif held talks with Russian officials for more than 4 hours, including an hour-long phone conversation with Putin, which Zarif himself described as “very fruitful”. Zarif and Russian officials also discussed extending a decades-long treaty between Iran and Russia, which is about to expire. Iran’s chief diplomat said that the treaty needs to be updated in a way that keep up with the developments that have been achieved in Iran-Russia relations during the past two decades. The Iran-Russia negotiations over the treaty are underway.  

“Iran and Russia are pursuing a greater plan to draft a strategic document that could shape their relations for years to come,” Shuaib Bahman, a Russia expert, has previously told the Tehran Times.

Iran is also negotiating with China over another long-term strategic agreement. Some believe that the Rouhani government has adopted a new policy of cementing ties with Russia and China to ensure their support for Iran in the face of the U.S. efforts to extend the UN arms embargo.

However, Asiaban believes that Russia and China would support the JCPOA, even if their strategic agreements with Iran are not finalized.

“These two countries will always support the JCPOA, whether they sign strategic agreements with Iran or not. But their support is political,” Asiaban noted.

Putin hasn’t said how he intends to save the Iran nuclear deal. But his nascent efforts highlight a possible revival of diplomatic initiatives between Iran and the U.S., ahead of the expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran in October. It remains to be seen whether he succeeds in finding a diplomatic off-ramp in the Iran-U.S. tensions.


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