Putin's horrendous war on Ukraine is no reason to give up on renewing the nuclear deal with Iran

The launch of what President Vladimir Putin said is Russia's new nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile
The launch of what Russian President Vladimir Putin said was Russia's new nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile, March 1, 2018.RU-RTR Russian Television/AP
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  • As the US works to reenter to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, critics have objected to Russia's involvement.

  • Moscow's ancillary role in the deal is a small price to pay to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.

Today, Russia is wielding nuclear threats to help perpetrate an illegal, unjustified, and immoral war against Ukraine.

At the same time, Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than it has ever been before, largely due to former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The US must ensure that Iran does not join Russia as a nuclear-capable power able to bully its neighbors. A renewed Iran nuclear deal is the best way to avert that disaster.

Thanks to the Biden administration's painstaking diplomacy, a resuscitated agreement to once again limit Iran's nuclear program is within sight. However, opponents of the deal have raised a new objection: that somehow the deal is illegitimate because it involves Russia.

This is absurd. Russia's ancillary role in the deal is a small price to pay to ensure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

US Iran nuclear deal
Iranians in northern Tehran celebrate the Iranian nuclear deal, April 2, 2015.AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

The original agreement involved China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, the EU, the US, and Iran. Its multilateralism was key to its effectiveness: It blocked Iran's path to a nuclear weapon largely because the international community faced Iran with a united front.

But now, that advantage of the deal is being characterized as a liability. In the last few weeks, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, lashed out, saying "Mr. President, you are the only one in America doing business with the Russians. Stop doing business with the Russians. Don't have them negotiating for us."

Fox News' Brian Kilmeade raised the same point in an interview, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) made similar comments, saying "It's insane to have the Russians be the intermediary."

It would be insane if it were true. But it simply is not. The true intermediary between the US and Iran is not Russia. It's the Europeans. They have worked tirelessly — both to keep the deal on life support during the Trump administration and to facilitate a US re-entry to it under the Biden administration.

To undermine their contributions is not just disrespectful to them as US allies — it is a sop to Russia that misrepresents reality.

iran nuclear
The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran.MAJID ASGARIPOUR/AFP/Getty Images

With so many misrepresenting Russia's role in the negotiations to re-enter the JCPOA, it is important to clarify Russia's role in the JCPOA itself. The goal of the agreement was to ensure Iran could not build a nuclear weapon. As such, any deal would require removing Iran's stockpile of excess uranium and relocating it to another country.

With the US and European parties to the 2015 deal unwilling or unable to take the radioactive material, Russia volunteered.

The argument that shipping excess Iranian uranium to Russia directly enriches the Russian nuclear program is unfounded. As the country with the most nuclear weapons in the world, Russia has no need to expand its nuclear arsenal.

As of 2020, Russia, with an estimated 747 tons of highly-enriched uranium, has nothing to benefit from Iran's .036 tons, a drop in the bucket for Russia. Currently, Russia is not producing fissile materials for weapons.

Additionally, the New START Treaty restricts Russia from building new strategic weapons and we know that Russia is in compliance with that treaty. Therefore, there is virtually no proliferation risk in letting Russia handle the excess uranium removed from Iran.

Moreover, should the deal be revived, the JCPOA would restore the most rigorous monitoring mechanism that exists on any nuclear program anywhere in the world. 18 of Iran's nuclear facilities and nine other facilities would be under strict IAEA safeguards. If Russia tried to divert this uranium back to Iran for some nefarious purpose, we can be confident that the world would know.

Iran nuclear deal meeting in Vienna
Parties to the Iran nuclear deal meet in Vienna, December 17, 2021.EU Vienna Delegation/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Furthermore, US leadership is the only reason the original deal, or any resuscitated version of it, was possible. It was the threat of US military action, the cost of US economic sanctions, and the dogged diplomacy of US diplomats that got Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, during the Obama administration.

Despite the diplomatic cost of withdrawal of the deal, the US is still the lead driver of the transatlantic alliance that is within striking distance of ensuring, once again, that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.

Putin's Russia is unquestionably a nefarious and toxic actor. However, arresting Iran's nuclear progress is unquestionably in the United States' interest. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) has stated, Russia does not have to be the destination country for Iran's uranium. But there is nothing in and of itself disqualifying about Russia being that destination country.

A renewed nuclear deal will not help Russia at the expense of the US. It would simply help the US — by ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.

Akshai Vikram is the nuclear policy advisor at Foreign Policy for America, an organization dedicated to principled American engagement in the world. He previously worked on nuclear issues as a Roger Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund and was a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' 2021 Nuclear Scholars Initiative.

Samuel M. Hickey is a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work portfolio includes the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, nuclear security, and missile defense. He is also a term member on the advisory board of the International Nuclear Security Forum.

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