Did Russia Just Blow Up Our Nuclear Deal With Iran?

Russia and Iran are close to agreeing on a trade deal that will significantly boost Iran's oil exports, flouting U.S. sanctions-based negotiation tactics to deter Iran from pushing forward with their disputed nuclear program. 

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Russia and Iran are close to agreeing on a trade deal that will significantly boost Iran's oil exports, flouting the U.S.'s sanctions-based tactics to deter Iran from pushing forward with their disputed nuclear program.

Reuters reports that the trade would be a $1.5 million-per-month "oil-for-goods swap," that would see Iran receive goods and equipment from Russia in exchange for 500,000 barrels of oil each day. Various sources told Reuters that the deal was imminent:

"Good progress is being made at the moment with strong chances of success," said a Russian source. "We are discussing the details and the date of signing a deal depends on those details." The Kremlin declined comment. "Our desire is to sign the deal as soon as possible," said a senior Iranian official, who declined to be named. "Our officials are discussing the matter with the Russians and hopefully it will be inked soon, regardless of whether we can reach a (nuclear) agreement in Geneva."

This exchange would increase Iran's monthly oil exports by about fifty percent, giving their crippled economy a desperately needed boost. Currently, Iran exports most of its oil to China, since Europe and America have effectively shut down their ability to sell oil with the rest of the world.

The deal comes as talks between Iran and six world powers (the U.S., U.K., China, Russia, France and Germany) come to a close in Geneva. The two-day meeting is an effort to cement a deal that would solve ongoing clashes between Western and Iranian leaders over how Iran should be allowed to proceed with its controversial nuclear program.

In November, months after relative moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, Western leaders agreed to ease some sanctions agains the country in exchange for a truncation of its nuclear program. Iran says its nuclear ambitions are scientific alone, but global leaders fear (and suspect) that the state is working to develop nuclear weapons — an unacceptable option for many leaders, notably Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu, who has said Israel will retaliate against Iran if it believes the country is posing a nuclear threat. 

The November deal was lauded as a step towards finally reaching an agreement, but talks were off to a rocky start on Thursday. The New York Times reports that Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's ultra-conservative supreme leader, who wields significantly more power than the president, finished the day by listing familiar grievances against Washington, including their use of economic sanctions to pressure the Iranian government:

Ayatollah Khamenei also reiterated his contention that the American-led economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program had no relevance to the progress in the negotiations with six world powers in recent months under Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. “The enemies think they imposed the embargo and forced Iran to negotiate,” he said. “No! We have already said that if we see interest in particular topics, we will negotiate with this devil in order to eliminate trouble coming from it.” The negotiations have been a blessing, he said, because “the hostility of America toward Iran, Iranians and Islam had become clear to everyone.”

Strangely enough, Iran's state-run newspaper reported today that the talks concluded today, successfully:

Representatives from Iran and the six world powers have wrapped up two days of talks in Geneva after reaching an agreement over outstanding issues pertaining to the implementation of last year's landmark nuclear deal. Top Iranian nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, represented the Islamic Republic, while European Union deputy foreign policy chief, Helga Schmid, represented the other side during the talks which ended on Friday.

Iran's PressTV – which is the state controlled media arm of the Iranian regime — appears to be the only outlet reporting the news. 

If it turns out that a nuclear deal was not reached, and if Russia finalizes a barter agreement with Iran, November's efforts toward successful negotiation will be considered a failure, but hardly an unexpected one. 

President Obama and his Iranian counterparts have made historic overtures over the last several months, warming relations between the nations for the first time decades, but there is little evidence to suggest that Khamenei is willing to budge on the nuclear program. Iran has been criticized time and again for enriching uranium at levels high enough to develop nuclear warheads, clouding its program in secrecy and refusing to participate with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Disputes over uranium enrichment levels were part of what held up discussions yesterday. And Russia and the U.S. have always been at odds over Iran, with Russia consistently joining the Middle Eastern nation in defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as leaders discussed how to handle that country's civil war. Russia never agreed to sanction Iran, and a barter deal with the country is a diplomatically risky, but not illogical next step.

It should be noted that sanctions themselves, though apparently the most effective way for Western leaders to squeeze Iran on its nuclear program, are not necessarily working. Reuters reported that Khamenei relies on a property-seizing company for funds and is largely unaffected by sanctions, even as the larger Iranian economy (and its regular citizens) suffer.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.