In response to U.S. and European Union sanctions on a number of Russian officials, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has threatened that Russia might change its stance on the Iran nuclear talks. That could put an end to the official unity with which the permanent five Security Council members — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany (dubbed the P5+1) — have been holding talks in Vienna with Iran, over Iran’s nuclear program.
And if the P5+1 start quarreling among themselves, while bargaining with Iran, that might sabotage the Iran nuclear talks.
This is playing in the press as something to be alarmed about. Actually, if Russia does go ahead and cause trouble at the Iran nuclear talks, Moscow might quite unintentionally be doing the West a great favor. I’ve been in Vienna for the first two rounds of these talks, Feb. 18-20 and March 18-19, and there’s no sign that this diplomatic process is going to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Rather, Iran is making some temporary and reversible concessions, while continuing to enrich uranium, and refusing to give up its ballistic missile program or abandon construction of a heavy-water de facto plutonium-factory reactor near Arak. Reuters reports that Iran is continuing its illicit activities for procuring items for its missile and nuclear programs.
Meanwhile, as part of the diplomatic interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is enjoying some relief from sanctions, and Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been jetting around the world declaring his country has an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium, and soliciting help for Iran with nuclear technology. Whatever “isolation” had been imposed on Iran’s diplomats (and there has been precious little of that, if any), Zarif when he comes to Vienna for the nuclear talks is treated as a special guest of the Austrian government, which has been picking up the tab for Zarif to bunk down in a former Viennese palace, now a gorgeously restored, lavishly appointed hotel. For more on both the amenities and the follies of these nuclear talks, see my Wall Street Journal op-ed on “Waltzing With Iran in the Nuclear Ballroom.”
In background briefings, a senior U.S. administration official describes a set of P5+1 negotiating procedures that involve closing “gaps” and “bridging” differences, the idea being to keep closing and bridging until finally everyone is happy and peace prevails. Except the big gap yawning ahead is that Iran is clearly planning to hang onto the infrastructure to build nuclear weapons — or, to put it more bluntly, Iran is still after the bomb. In too many ways, this is a replay of the assorted North Korea nuclear talks, which over the the past 20 years produced various agreements — none of which stopped North Korea from conducting three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The talks in Vienna are not saving the world from an Iranian nuclear arsenal. They may well be enabling the very thing they are supposed to prevent. If Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to up-end the talks, it would not be for friendly reasons. No one need thank him. Nonetheless, if Russian pique leads to a collapse of the Iran nuclear talks — ending the diplomatic charades in Vienna — that might just be the best news to come along on the diplomatic front in quite some time.