Talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) resumed on 22 April amid an atmosphere of increased optimism that a final deal will be reached following the 2 April framework agreement (see our last Report). For example, the Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said that Tehran intends to build two nuclear power plants, while Iran’s Oil Minister met his Chinese counterpart in Beijing to discuss investment in the energy sector. Russia also indicated that it hopes to begin importing Iranian crude oil in exchange for grain, equipment and construction materials.
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Moscow and Beijing originally cooperated with the measures targeting Tehran to put pressure on the Iranians to reach a deal over their nuclear programme. They now want to resume a full relationship with Tehran and their announcements in this period were likely intended as a warning to Washington that they may not participate in an extended sanctions programme if talks fail as a result of perceived US intransigence. Indeed, Russia and China are working on an alternative international money transfer system which will allow them to make payments to Iran without the use of SWIFT.
The international sanctions programme will be significantly weakened if Moscow and Beijing stop cooperating with it. We consequently believe that they will continue to prepare for the eventual lifting of sanctions to put pressure on the other P5+1 members to work towards a deal. Moreover, US President Obama and President Rouhani have both invested significant political capital in the talks and so will not want to see them fail. We consequently believe that there is now an increased likelihood of a deal finally being reached.
Finally, on 14 April the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an amended version of the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act. This measure had previously been intended to intensify sanctions against Tehran if talks failed, which was a major concern for the Iranians. However, it has now been softened and refocused on giving Congress the right to review a deal, reflecting the weakened position of US opponents of the nuclear negotiations. Even if Congress votes against the agreement with a two-thirds majority (which cannot be vetoed by Obama), this will now only affect those sanctions imposed by Congress. The legislation is consequently unlikely to present an immediate threat to the talks if passed, but the need for Congress to approve the removal of the sanctions it imposed could further complicate negotiations and so there is still no guarantee that a final agreement will be reached.