Russian ideas and diplomatic efforts played a major role in negotiating and adopting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to resolve the situation with the Iranian nuclear program.
Russia’s contribution to the positive outcome of the talks between a group of six countries (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) and Iran was manifold. It ranged from the overarching concepts and fundamentals (such as the “phased and reciprocal approach”) to purely technical proposals on addressing various aspects of the vastly challenging and contradictory situation (such as repurposing and conversion of the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow).  Assistance provided by the Russian State Atomiс Energy Corporation (ROSATOM), with coordination by the Russian Foreign Ministry, was a critical factor that allowed Tehran to bring its nuclear program into compliance with the frameworks agreed within the JCPOA, thereby enabling the parties to begin practical implementation of the JCPOA on January 16, 2016.
Following the US withdrawal from the agreement and the limited steps taken by Iran to reduce compliance with the deal in response to that withdrawal, Russia consistently advocates full implementation of the JCPOA, which should include all the original parties to the deal resuming their full compliance with its terms. In his statement at the 2019 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that “despite the […] actions taken by Washington, the JCPOA has not lost its significance. It has made it possible to resolve all the questions the IAEA had to Tehran, and it has put in place a regime of maximum transparency of the Iranian nuclear program […]. We are convinced that it would be in the best interests of all states to preserve the JCPOA and create favorable conditions for its continued sustainable, comprehensive and diligent fulfilment within the agreed time frame”. During a press conference after talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on September 24, 2020, minister Lavrov also emphasized that “the only way to preserve the JCPOA is to ensure its consistent and comprehensive fulfillment by all the parties involved, including all their commitments and in strict compliance with the terms and time frames agreed in 2015 and formalized in UN Security Council Resolution 2231”.
During his presidential election campaign, Joe Biden said on several occasions that he would be ready to resume US participation of the JCPOA in the event of his election victory. Writing in an opinion piece for the CNN website, he said that “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations”. He reiterated his position after the presidential elections.
In this article, three Russian experts offer their personal views on the key principles and approaches to resuming full compliance with the JCPOA by all the original parties to the deal, and on the role Russia could play in that process.
When the authors refer to “restoring the effectiveness” and “resuming full compliance with the JCPOA” in this paper, they proceed from the assumption that nearly all the steps taken by the United States since its withdrawal from the deal, as well as the steps in response taken by Tehran, are reversible. There are a few isolated “irreversibilities”, such as the continued development of Iranian uranium-enrichment knowhow (R&D) or the situation at the Fordow facility – but these are not insurmountable obstacles, and it is possible to effectively resolve them through the Joint Commission mechanism. Also, it would be possible for Washington and Tehran to resolve the issue of compensations raised by Iran if there is sufficient political will on both sides.
Key factors for reaching an agreement on the JCPOA
Before discussing a restoration of JCPOA effectiveness, let us look back at the key elements that first facilitated a sustainable negotiating process and then made it possible to reach an agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. We believe that the experience has a lot of relevance for efforts to restore the effectiveness of the JCPOA.
The factors that facilitated a successful negotiating process include the recognition by the Obama administration that sanctions cannot force Tehran to relinquish the development of nuclear technologies, and that Iran’s nuclear progress cannot be stopped by military means; any military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would only exacerbate the problem. Washington’s decision to abandon the idea of pursuing a regime change in Iran at that stage and its willingness to peacefully coexist with Iran was another fundamental decision on the path to progress on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program.
Washington’s new strategy of pursuing a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and its policy of direct engagement with Tehran created the necessary conditions for stepping up the negotiating process between the international “Group of Six” and Iran. Meanwhile, the political will at the highest levels – especially in Washington and Tehran – played a key role in making that process sustainable and enabling it to reach a successful outcome.
Other fundamental elements of success included the Iranian and US willingness to pursue a serious compromise (the general framework of which was agreed at a series of secret bilateral meetings in Oman) and the willingness of all the parties to the multilateral negotiating process to seek results on the basis of a careful balance of interests that included rights as well as responsibilities.
Another key element of success at the talks was the decision by all the parties to focus on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program and to insulate it from regional issues, as well as from the Iranian missile program.
The effectiveness of the negotiations was enhanced by the availability of multiple simultaneous channels for talks. Individual solutions and draft decisions could first be discussed bilaterally (in the Iran-US, Russia-Iran, E3/EU-Iran, or Russia-US format) and then multilaterally by all the parties. Sometimes, specific issues were discussed by a very small number of parties who had the most to contribute.
Very importantly for an effective multilateral dialogue, the parties were prepared to separate and insulate talks on the Iranian nuclear program from the negative impact of their numerous differences on other matters (including deep divisions between Moscow and Washington on Syria, Ukraine, and sanctions).
Finally, it is worth highlighting the role of personal relations between the negotiators. Despite their differences and sometimes extremely deep divisions on matters of policy, the participants in the negotiating marathon treated each other with deep respect, and the resulting spirit of cooperation was instrumental in the eventual success of the talks.
Restoring the effectiveness of the JCPOA: principles and approaches
Defining the objectives. As already mentioned, the term “restore the effectiveness” refers to an outcome where the United States fully resumes its participation in and compliance with the nuclear deal after unilaterally withdrawing in May 2018 and then taking several steps that run counter to the JCPOA and UNSC Resolution 2231 (mainly concerning the sanctions against Iran), with Iran, in parallel, coming back to its full compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.
Practical side of the matter. The restoration of the JCPOA effectiveness should primarily include the lifting of US sanctions imposed on Iran following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, and a halt of the Iranian nuclear efforts that are not allowed at the current phase of the JCPOA. For its own part, Iran will have to reduce its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium to the agreed ceilings, and to restore a JCPOA-compliant mode of operation at the Fordow facility (perhaps with some agreed clarifications that may be formalized through Joint Commission decisions in order to address the aforementioned “irreversibilities”). Iran will also have to bring its centrifuge fleet into a qualitative and quantitative compliance with the JCPOA.
As far as we are aware, President Rouhani’s diplomatic team does not see any insurmountable problems that might impede a quick resolution of these issues on the part of Iran, although practical details may require some work by experts (including joint efforts), and some of those details may take time to implement. There may be a need to prepare a kind of “road map” for Washington’s and Tehran’s return to a full and comprehensive compliance with the JCPOA. There are also some specific aspects where a return to the situation that existed before the US withdrawal from the JCPOA is impossible. These include the additional centrifuge knowhow and engineering expertise acquired by Iran as result of R&D work in the intervening period. As for the United States, the lifting or waiving of a whole range of sanctions may take time (how much time will depend on the specific sanctions in question). It may also be complicated by the domestic political infighting over US policy on Iran, which is unlikely to end if Washington takes the political decision to re-join the JCPOA. The lifting of some “non-nuclear” sanctions (that are not directly linked to the JCPOA) may also prove completely impossible for domestic political reasons. That will require a flexible approach from Washington as well as from Tehran.
The list of US steps should include the following:
- Rescind the Presidential Memorandum of May 8, 2018 on the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, and resume full US compliance with the terms of the deal without any additional preconditions.
- Rescind US State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s statements of September 19, 2020 and August 20, 2020, on the restoration of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran; rescind the subsequent Presidential Executive Order of September 21, 2020 on the imposition of sanctions against persons or legal entities engaged in the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional weapons or their components to Tehran; also rescind any subsequent congressional bills.
- Lift the unilateral UN sanctions imposed after May 8, 2018 on Iranian persons and legal entities, as well as persons and entities under the jurisdiction of foreign states, including Russia.
Political side of the matter. There are numerous uncertainties on the political horizon that will stand in the way of full restoration of the JCPOA effectiveness. These uncertainties will certainly impose a narrow time frame for achieving at least a limited early success that will be necessary to create a positive political momentum in the US and Iran and in the relations between the two countries. The main uncertainty is the ability of president-elect Joe Biden (who has advocated rejoining the JCPOA) and of his new presidential team to resist attempts at forcing them to abandon that goal or to make it contingent on impossible preconditions. Then, neither should one underestimate the potential risks stemming from sudden crisis situations, both accidental and deliberate provocations, an example of the latter type being the assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November 2020.
As for Iran, its own presidential election campaign will play a big role. On the one hand, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif urgently need a situation that would enable them to demonstrate signs of economic improvement and secure speedy financial injections into the Iranian economy that would be visible to Iranians. But that does not mean that Tehran would be prepared to make additional concessions in terms of changing the JCPOA parameters, accepting some additional bilateral arrangements with the US, or even holding separate bilateral talks (let alone secret talks – at least in the format used in 2013). Such additional concessions would spell an immediate political demise of Rouhani, Zarif, and the political groupings they lead, despite possible economic benefits. All of these considerations dictate the need for a political will for a restoration of the JCPOA effectiveness, a readiness for compromise in Tehran and Washington, and mindfulness of the time factor. After that, “more-for-more” may become possible with the next Iranian administration. Without resuming full compliance with the JCPOA, hopes for a potential follow-on deal will remain wishful thinking.
Principles and approaches. It is important that all the parties to the process abide by a certain set of principles.
First, there must be no changes to the text of the JCPOA itself. Washington may be tempted to push back certain deadlines or add limitations on Iran’s missile capability. For its own part, Iran may have concerns about some elements of the original deal, especially in view of how it was implemented in 2015-2020. Such issues could be discussed – but without turning them into preconditions for a full restoration of JCPOA effectiveness. Also, any such discussions should take place after said restoration, but not before. Every effort must be made to avoid the impression that Iran (or other JCPOA members) are being made to pay some kind of price for Washington’s rejoining the deal. Neither should we give any credence to the notion that it would somehow be easier for the United States and Iran to return to a “truncated” version of the JCPOA (designated as “JCPOA-minus”) whereby the two countries would have to comply only with some, but not all of their original obligations under the JCPOA. At the very least, that would cause new difficulties in establishing a new balance of interests. It would also complicate the procedure of approval of the resulting agreement as Tehran and especially Washington would then need to complete the necessary national procedure on a new agreement rather than the existing one, which has already been reviewed. All of that would take more time, and time is already very short.
Second, the focus must remain exclusively on the Iran nuclear program. The entire effort to restore the effectiveness of the JCPOA must be kept within the original framework of the deal; in other words, it must focus on the nuclear issue and nothing else. Building a parallel dialogue involving Washington and Tehran (as well as other countries) on regional issues in order to reduce tensions in the Middle East should be welcomed – but progress of that dialogue should not be linked to progress on the nuclear issue, and it should not distract resources from the talks on restoring the effectiveness of the JCPOA. Also, it must be logistically separate from efforts on the JCPOA so as to ensure the right political optics. The ministerial debate on the situation in the Persian Gulf organized on 20 October 2020 during the Russian rotating presidency of the UN Security Council could be viewed as a first step in that direction. The development of measures to prevent further escalation and the establishment of a reliable collective security system in the Persian Gulf is also the goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to hold a videoconference meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany and Iran.
Third, mechanisms of the JCPOA itself should be utilized as much as possible right from the start. This will not only serve as an additional confidence-building factor, but also enable a prompt resolution of various issues that will arise, especially those requiring efforts from other participants. It appears that the Joint Commission might also be the most politically convenient platform for resuming direct US-Iranian contacts. Besides, it is very important that the Joint Commission can facilitate a combination of various formats of the talks, i.e. multilateral and bilateral, and formal as well as informal.
Fourth and final, mutually discussed but formally unilateral confidence-building steps by the US and Iran (not necessarily related to the JCPOA) could play a positive role at the initial phase. Such steps would help to reverse the negative JCPOA dynamics and to facilitate a resumption of full compliance with the deal’s provisions. The US steps could include humanitarian measures to lift the restrictions on exports of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment to Iran, including those needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic; enabling Iran to resume limited oil exports; easing restrictions in the banking sector; and lifting the threat of sanctions against third countries and their companies for engaging in activities related to the JCPOA-approved projects in Arak and Fordow, as well as to the Bushehr NPP. Reciprocal Iranian steps could be of a humanitarian nature; if possible, they might also include reciprocal nuclear steps that could be regarded as initial efforts to bring Tehran’s nuclear program into compliance with the Comprehensive Plan of Action. For example, they might include not going above the 3.67-per-cent enrichment threshold (the maximum enrichment level stipulated by the JCPOA).
Possible Russian role
Of course, the greater part of political effort required for restoring the effectiveness of the JCPOA will have to be undertaken by the United States and Iran. Other participants in the process could contribute in the following ways:
- help to initiate and structure the dialogue between all the parties to the agreement;
- pursue effective joint economic activities with Iran;
- provide assistance with practical measures to bring the Iranian nuclear program into compliance with the JCPOA.
This applies to Russia as well.
The fundamental factors that dictated the nature of Russia’s involvement in the JCPOA talks were as follows:
- Protecting and strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime, both globally and in the Middle Eastern region; efforts to strengthen the central role of the NPT and the IAEA in resolving nuclear nonproliferation-related crises;
- A determination to prevent the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program from degenerating into an armed conflict in direct proximity to Russian borders;
- The need for a normalization of the situation with Iran and for fostering a favorable climate for bilateral trade and economic cooperation with Iran;
- Efforts to strengthen the central role of the UN Security Council in upholding peace and security.
We believe that as of December 2020, the above list remains unchanged in terms of Russian national interests, which will inform future Russian policy on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As described above, top Russian officials have consistently expressed their political support for the notion that all the original parties to the JCPOA should fully resume all their commitments under the plan in order to fully implement it. They have also stressed that Russia attaches great importance to “Tehran’s readiness immediately to resume full compliance with all JCPOA requirements as soon as its legitimate concerns about certain other parties’ noncompliance are resolved”.
Russian political and other strategic channels of communication with Tehran, including those used to discuss JCPOA issues, remain fully open despite the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Mohammad Javad Zarif paid three visits to Moscow in June-November 2020, and a total of 31 visits since his appointment as foreign minister. Based on all the factors outlined above, Russia seeks a full restoration of JCPOA effectiveness, and we believe it will be ready to provide active assistance in facilitating the dialogue required for a comprehensive return to the fulfilment of all JCPOA commitments. In that context, let us recall that in June 2012, Moscow hosted one of the rounds of negotiations between Iran and a group of six countries on the Iranian nuclear program.
Before the implementation of the JCPOA can fully resume, the United States will first have to clean up, without delay, the mess created by its decisions in 2018-2020. That includes, among other things, addressing the issue of “compensations” raised by Tehran.
Neither should anyone expect that Russia will quickly be able to make a direct contribution to improving the economic situation in Iran because Tehran’s priority is to resume oil exports, whereas Russia itself is one of the world’s leading exporters of hydrocarbons. The key role here will have to be played by China and the EU states, as well as the other traditional major importers of Iranian oil such as South Korea and Japan.
Russia can play a central role in bringing the Iranian nuclear program into compliance with the JCPOA requirements. Given Russia’s political support for a comprehensive implementation of the JCPOA, its technological resources, and its experience of cooperation with Iran, it would be logical to suggest the possibility of the Russian nuclear industry resuming its participation in the technical projects needed to bring the Iranian nuclear program into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. ROSATOM still has a wealth of experience of participating in complex foreign and international nuclear projects.
But on the other hand, the situation on this issue has become more complex compared to how matters stood before the signing of the JCPOA in 2015.
The lessons learnt from participation in technical projects in the JCPOA framework in 2015-2020 have demonstrated the high associated financial risks caused by possible changes in US policy and by the possibility of new sanctions aimed at undermining the agreements reached by the previous US administration. From the point of view of the Russian nuclear industry’s interests, the situation has actually deteriorated since the conclusion of the JCPOA. The Trump administration has built a legal framework that can be used to impose extraterritorial restrictions against ROSATOM, its affiliates and other legal entities and persons for their role in projects originated from the JCPOA. Unilateral US actions have already created obstacles for Russia’s implementation of the Bushehr NPP project, which was previously seen as “untouchable” by all the parties involved in resolving the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program, and which is one of the key projects pursuant to Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under IAEA safeguards. The Russian industry is now finding itself in a kind of trap because the previous US administration had asked Russia (with Iran’s consent) to remove for temporary storage in Russian territory the material meant for the Tehran Research Reactor fuel plates fabrication (“fuel meat”) – but the current administration has passed legislation that threatens sanctions for returning that material back to Iran.
Also, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA has vindicated the argument by some influential political analysts who criticize the Russian leadership’s agreement to remove nuclear material and products from Iran to Russia, thereby acting as “the garbageman of the world”, as they put it. Such voices were always present in Russia, but they have now become more prominent. Emotions have also been fanned by the recent initiative in the US Senate to impose sanctions on Russian companies and organizations, potentially including the ROSATOM, on the pretext of Russia’s alleged not fulfilling its obligations under Article VI of the NPT.
It is obvious that before Russia can join any such projects, the risk of future sanctions over Russian participation in JCPOA-related projects in Iran or over Russian-Iranian peaceful nuclear energy projects will have to be excluded. That should include assurances/guarantees from the US administration that sanctions will not be imposed on the ROSATOM or its affiliates, nor any other legal entities or persons involved in such projects, and that Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation will not become a target of unilateral US sanctions. Additionally, the parties will have to develop a new mechanism that would make any removal of Iranian nuclear industry’s materials with Russian participation reversible in the event of a unilateral US withdrawal from the deal.
In view of all these considerations, the possibility of Russia’s participation in technical JCPOA-related projects will have to be discussed in great detail between Moscow and Washington, including high-level consultations, in order to put in place the conditions required for Russian legal entities to join such projects.
On the whole, there must be no changes to the text of the JCPOA – but the parties should aim to develop a mechanism which would give all the key actors a degree of confidence that Washington will not announce another unilateral withdrawal from the deal following the arrival of a new administration. Looking further ahead and thinking about a potential follow-on agreement on the basis of the “more-for-more” principle (the possibility of such an agreement was referred to by president-elect Joe Biden), there are no reasons why Russia shouldn’t support any steps that help to reduce tensions in the Middle East, normalize the situation with Iran, and help restore normal trade and economic cooperation with Tehran – so long as these steps reflect a balance of interests of all the parties involved. The Russian-proposed Security Concept for the Gulf Area could serve as a basis for such long-term thinking and dialogue.
 Remarks by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov at the Center for Energy and Security Studies workshop “The Iran Nuclear Deal: Russia’s Interests and Prospects for Implementation”, August 14, 2015. http://ceness-russia.org/data/page/p1494_1.pdf. P. 2.
 Remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the 2019 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference on the subject of “The Priorities of Russia’s Policy in the Field of Arms Control and Nonproliferation at a Time of Changes in the Global Security Architecture”, Moscow, November 8, 2019. https://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/international_safety/regprla/-/asset_publisher/YCxLFJnKuD1W/content/id/3891674 .
 Remarks and a Q&A session by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a joint press conference following talks in Moscow with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, September 24, 2020. https://www.mid.ru/web/guest/adernoe-nerasprostranenie/-/asset_publisher/JrcRGi5UdnBO/content/id/4350105 .
Joe Biden: There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran. CNN. 2020, September 13. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html .
Thomas L. Friedman. Biden Made Sure ‘Trump Is Not Going to Be President for Four More Years’. New York Times. 2020, December 2.
 Wendy Sherman, Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence. PublicAffairs, 2018. P. 25.
 William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. Random House, 2019. P. 345-346.
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 One of the key elements of the basic mutual understanding reached in Oman was Washington’s acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium and of a limited uranium enrichment program in Iran as part of a future agreement.
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