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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Iran Welcomes Russian Nuclear Proposal

Peter Crail

Senior Iranian officials last month welcomed a Russian-proposed “step-by-step” process to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, a move that could potentially restart talks between six major world powers and Iran.

“The proposal of our Russian friends can be a base for the start of talks about regional and international cooperation, especially in the field of peaceful nuclear activities,” Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told Iran’s official Press TV following discussions with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Tehran Aug. 15–16.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and Germany, known as the “P5+1,” have been engaged in off-and-on discussions with Iran over its nuclear program over the past several years. They failed to make headway during their latest meeting with Iran in Istanbul last January. (See ACT, March 2011.)

The text of the proposal has not been released, but Russian officials have publicly said that, under its terms, Iran would take steps to increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and those steps would be met with a gradual easing of sanctions. Informed sources characterized the steps as necessary confidence-building measures to build enough trust between the two sides to facilitate more ­comprehensive negotiations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov first publicly revealed the basis of the Russian proposal in remarks July 12 at the Russian Embassy in Washington. Lavrov said the Russian plan is intended to serve as a “road map” to implement a package of incentives initially proposed by the P5+1 in 2006, and updated in 2008, as part of a negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran makes a step towards implementing the requirements of IAEA and [the P5+1] do[es] something in return…to make the pressure of sanctions lower,” Lavrov said. He noted that Russia first suggested the plan to the other P5+1 parties last November.

Asked to provide further detail the following day during a press briefing with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lavrov said that Iran would need to address “each requirement of the IAEA…starting from the easiest questions” to the most ­difficult ones requiring more time.

UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran state that penalties would be lifted if Iran took actions to comply with UN obligations, in particular the suspension of all activities related to uranium enrichment, which can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The informed sources said that the criteria for relieving sanctions would not be different from those identified in the resolutions.

The IAEA has asked Iran to undertake a number of steps to provide greater transparency into all of its nuclear activities and to answer questions about suspected nuclear warhead development work. Tehran claims that it has cooperated fully with its IAEA obligations; it has rebuffed the agency’s investigation into suspected nuclear weapons development, calling the allegations “baseless.”

Clinton said during the press briefing that the United States was committed to a “dual track approach” of negotiations and sanctions but, with Russia, would explore ways “to pursue more effective engagement strategies.”

A U.S. team of experts visited Moscow at the end of July to discuss the proposal further. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Aug. 15 that Washington would continue to work with Moscow to address Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the proposal “doesn’t change our desire…to continue to vigorously implement UN Security Council [Resolution] 1929.” She was referring to the latest UN sanctions against Iran, which were adopted in June 2010. (See ACT, July/August 2010.) On the possibility of relieving sanctions, Nuland said that “you can only ease sanctions when you have action” from Iran.

Senators Push for Bank Sanctions

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are pressing the Obama administration to adopt additional sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank, a move that could reduce Iran’s oil revenues but also affect world energy markets and raise oil prices.

Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter signed by 90 other senators to President Barack Obama Aug. 4 stating, “[W]e urge you to strongly consider imposing sanctions against the [Central Bank of Iran] and to encourage key allies to join us in this important action.” Sanctions legislation signed into law last year similarly urges the president to sanction Iran’s central bank under a “sense of Congress” provision.

In their letter, the senators said the central bank “lies at the center of Iran’s circumvention strategy” to skirt U.S. and international sanctions on Iran’s financial sector. The letter quotes May 5 testimony by Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen to the Senate Banking Committee stating, “[W]e remain concerned that the [Central Bank of Iran] may be facilitating transactions for sanctioned Iranian banks.”

The UN Security Council has sanctioned two Iranian banks for proliferation-related activities, and the United States and European Union have sanctioned additional banks for their roles in financing proliferation and terrorism.

Kirk was quoted Aug. 8 in The Wall Street Journal as stating that if the Obama administration does not sanction Iran’s central bank, “[T]he administration will face a choice of whether it wants to lead this effort or be forced to act,” saying that he would introduce legislation to impose such sanctions by the end of the year.

Former U.S. officials said in August that since the George W. Bush administration, the United States has believed that the central bank has been engaged in sanctionable activities but that Washington has been reluctant to impose sanctions unilaterally because it might create difficulties for U.S. allies trading with Iran.

Within the P5+1, the United States also discussed the possibility of adding the central bank to the list of Iranian entities blacklisted by the UN Security Council prior to the adoption of Resolution 1929 last year, but the six countries could not agree on taking such a step, informed sources said.

As a result of sanctions against Iran’s financial and energy sector, Tehran has been facing problems receiving payment for its energy exports. For example, it took seven months before India was able to secure a Turkish bank intermediary last month to make $5 billion in back payments for Iranian crude oil due to economic sanctions. Sanctions on the central bank are intended to ­increase such payment problems.