The clock is ticking on Vienna sanctions-removal talks, but the Ukraine crisis has injected some new, valid, sanctions-related snafus into negotiations.
On 5 March, Moscow demanded written guarantees of sanctions waivers from US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that would preserve Russia’s ambitious economic, scientific-technological and military collaboration projects in the pipeline with Iran.
While privately, Iranian delegation members in Vienna were undoubtedly miffed at this eleventh-hour wrench in the works, Tehran’s official position was stoic.
“Russia is a responsible member of nuclear negotiations, and it has always proven that, not like America,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokeman Saeed Khatibzadeh informed reporters on Monday.
“It is natural for us to discuss its [Russia’s] demands,” he continued, and bolstered Moscow’s position by adding: “What really matters is that the nuclear cooperation relations between Iran and various countries should not be subject to sanctions.”
March 5 also happens to be the anniversary of the date the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970.
The fate of the NPT may now hinge on the US response. For, if the Biden administration rides the high horse, that will almost certainly be a deal-breaker for the current negotiations in Vienna to broker the US’ return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
On the other hand, a golden opportunity is now at hand for Iran too to hang tough on its remaining demands — that is, removing the US designation of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization; a firm guarantee that a future US government will not (again) renege on the nuclear deal; and, conclusively closing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) case on Tehran’s nuclear program. Russia is firmly supportive of Iran’s demands.
The chances of Biden obliging Moscow with sanctions waivers are nil, as that would lethally damage US prestige and make a complete mockery of its ‘weaponization of the dollar’ (which is what sanctions are about). Without using sanctions as a weapon, the US is increasingly unable to force its will on other countries.
The “sanctions from hell” recently imposed on Russia demonstrate a new cutting edge, and include the freezing of Russia’s central bank reserves. It is a cynical move to the extreme which may come with significant unforeseen repercussions. For one, the US looks to be sending a powerful message to China as well, which holds something like 2-3 trillion dollars as US Treasury bonds.
China draws its own lines
The call from Blinken to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on March 5 — the same day Russia transmitted its demand for sanction waivers — suggests that China is no doubt closely observing developments. Wang told Blinken point-blank that Beijing has “grave concern over recent words and deeds of the US side,” especially with regard to Taiwan, and expects “concrete actions” by the Americans to shore up the relationship.
China has consistently opposed US sanctions. On the issue of Ukraine, Wang Yi cautioned Washington from taking further actions that “add fuel to the fire” (alluding to reported plans to dispatch foreign mercenaries to join the fighting), and importantly, “to engage in equal dialogue with Russia, face up to the frictions and problems accumulated over the years, pay attention to the negative impact of NATO’s continuous eastward expansion on Russia’s security, and seek to build a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism in accordance with the ‘indivisibility of security’ principle.”
Suffice to say, if China is not caving in, the strong likelihood is that the negotiations in Vienna may soon lose momentum. The latest Russian demand can even prove a deal-maker. The action-reaction syndrome used to be a staple of the superpower nuclear competition. But Russians seem to have now found an ingenious new dimension to it: counter US dollar weaponization by extending the countermeasure to the nuclear non-proliferation issue.
“Weaponizing the atom”
By doing so, Russia has elevated the American sanctions regime far beyond the crude money terms of seizing central bank dollar reserves — which is plain highway robbery — to an altogether new sublime level of “weaponization of atom.”
Iran has suffered immensely from the US’ weaponization of the dollar. Ever since its 1979 revolution, Iran has been under western sanctions aimed at stifling its growth and development — many of them cruel and humiliating. These hit a nadir, when at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the US even blocked Iran’s pathway to procure vaccines for its citizens.
So many such horrific episodes can be dredged up from Iran’s four-decade-long painful history as a victim of America’s “weaponization of dollar,” whereby, an immensely resource-rich country was forced to live far below its real potential, and one of the world’s greatest and oldest civilizations suffered humiliations at the hands of an uppity country with some 246 years of history.
It must then be tormenting for Washington that Iran is one of the countries that has immense potential to resort to “weaponization of atom” to counter America’s “weaponization of dollar.”
Whether it will do or not is a moot point. Certainly, Iran’s stated preference is to live without nuclear weapons. That is why it has come fully prepared to close the deal at the negotiations in Vienna. Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian even told EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Friday that he’s “ready to fly to Vienna” to sign the nuclear deal on Monday.
But the point is, if Iran wishes, it has the capability to meet the US on equal terms even without a nuclear deal in Vienna. In fact, if Biden refuses to provide Russia with a written guarantee to suspend the “sanctions from hell,” that deal may not go through in Vienna, since Russia, as an original signatory to the JCPOA, must sign off on it. Of course, the Americans are insisting that they will continue to work with Russia at Vienna within the matrix of their shared interest to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.
Indeed, as it is, the remaining three demands by Iran also pose a big challenge to Biden. Lifting the ban on the IRGC is a bitter pill for the Washington elite to swallow; again, Biden is in no position to guarantee that a deal signed in Vienna will have any shelf life beyond his presidency.
Herein lies the catch. Until such time as an agreement is reached in Vienna, Iran’s centrifuges will be producing enriched uranium, which would mean that the so-called “breakout time” keeps shrinking and for all purposes, at some point, Iran will have transformed itself as a virtual nuclear weapon state whether it wants or not — and the very purpose of the deal that the US is frantically seeking at Vienna will be defeated.
For Iran too, this is a moment of truth. Things have come to such a pass in international politics that many countries, which willingly signed the NPT, probably regret their decision now. India, Pakistan and North Korea already broke the NPT shackle. The point is, in the final analysis, a nuclear weapon is the means to preserve a country’s strategic autonomy to pursue independent policies.
It provides a firewall against foreign interference in the internal affairs; it reduces the scope for Washington’s coup machine to overthrow the established government; it compels the US to abandon the highly immoral, cynical bullying via “weaponization of the dollar;” and, above all, it enhances plurality in the world order by strengthening a country’s freedom to choose its own unique path of development.
“Atoms for Peace” was the title of a famous speech delivered by US President Dwight Eisenhower to the UN General Assembly in New York City in 1953. In retrospect, it turned out to be a propaganda component of the US’ Cold War strategy of containing the former Soviet Union.
Eisenhower was launching a media campaign that would last for years aimed at “emotion management,” balancing fears of continuing nuclear armament with promises of peaceful use of uranium in future nuclear reactors.
Ironically, that catchy phrase acquires today an altogether new meaning: Atoms may offer the best means to an equitable world order.