Will alleged drone sales to Russia impact Iran’s nuclear deal?

Talks to revive the agreement remain in limbo as a UN resolution underpinning the accord is being dragged into the Ukraine war.

Iranian flag
A national flag of Iran waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria [Michael Gruber/AP]

Tehran, Iran – Iran and the West are arguing over Tehran’s alleged drone sales to Russia for the war in Ukraine, an issue now being linked to a United Nations resolution backing the country’s nuclear deal with world powers.

UN Security Council Resolution 2231 was unanimously adopted in 2015 to endorse the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the accord that Iran signed with China, Russia, the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany to get sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

The US unilaterally abandoned the accord in 2018 and imposed harsh sanctions that remain in place today. Efforts since April 2021 to restore the deal have stalled.

European powers are now trying to use a periodic reporting mechanism in the resolution. Last week they called on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to investigate Iran’s purported drone sales to Russia, a claim Tehran has consistently denied.

The US has said the alleged export of “kamikaze drones” used in Ukraine could be a breach of the resolution.

The JCPOA included a ban on exports of conventional arms by Iran, which expired in October 2020 despite opposition by the US. It still retains a ban on activities related to ballistic missiles, which is set to expire in October 2023.

‘Spend it to buy coal’

Western powers say Tehran could be in breach of obligations that limit proliferation of missiles which, if proven, could potentially trigger a “snapback” mechanism that would automatically reinstate international sanctions against Iran.

Tehran has unsurprisingly rejected the call for a UN investigation based on the JCPOA resolution. Foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani strongly condemned it in a statement on Saturday.

On Monday, Kanani reiterated Tehran’s stance that it has not provided Moscow with Shahed-136 suicide drones or other munitions for the war in Ukraine despite sharing “defence cooperation” with the Kremlin.

He also denied a White House claim that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sent personnel to Russian-annexed Crimea to help with operating the drones.

But top officials, including the country’s supreme leader and president, have boasted about Iran’s military prowess with a senior Revolutionary Guard commander saying last week that 22 countries want to purchase Iranian drones. He did not name those nations.

“From today, in implementing their sanctions, I allow the European Union to identify and seize all my assets in banks around the world and spend it to buy coal for European citizens as there is a harsh winter ahead,” Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said in a mocking statement on Monday in reaction to sanctions imposed against him and others by the bloc and Britain.

JCPOA in limbo

The linking of the nuclear deal resolution and the war in Ukraine is taking place as talks to restore the JCPOA remain in limbo and Iran and the West send different signals.

The indirect Iran-US talks that appeared on the verge of crossing the finish line about two months ago hit another deadlock last month. Tehran and Washington are blaming each other for indecisiveness, and the discussions effectively have been delayed until after the US midterm elections next month.

Protests that erupted in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in mid-September have cast another major shadow with Iran blaming the West for “inciting riots” and the West imposing human rights sanctions and calling on Tehran to stop what it called a “brutal repression of protests”.

While the US has said the nuclear talks are not a priority at the moment, Iran has offered a completely different narrative.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, said on Saturday that he received a message from the US through an intermediary three days earlier that showed Washington was actually “in a hurry” to reach an agreement on the nuclear deal.

“The Americans are trying to exert political and psychological pressure to get concessions in the talks,” said Amirabdollahian, singling out the issue of an unresolved investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into man-made nuclear material found in several Iranian sites.

Iran has demanded the probe be closed before an agreement is reached.

Tehran says the IAEA is acting under political pressure from the West and Israel in its pursuit of the investigation, but the nuclear watchdog has maintained the only way the inquiry will be closed is through full cooperation by Iran.

In late September, Iran’s nuclear chief, Mohammad Eslami, officially restarted talks with the IAEA in Vienna, and the process appears to be continuing.

“Fortunately, we are in a good path in terms of technical talks and cooperation with the agency despite mischief by the Zionist regime [Israel] lobby,” foreign ministry spokesman Kanani said Monday.

Amirabdollahian was quoted by Iranian state media on Monday as saying defence cooperation between Tehran and Moscow will continue.

“If it is proven to us that Iranian drones are being used in the Ukraine war against people, we should not remain indifferent,” Amirabdollahian said.

On Sunday, Amirabdollahian had another phone call about the nuclear talks with his counterpart from Oman, Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, who along with Qatar has been relaying messages between Tehran and Washington.

Source: Al Jazeera