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Source: FT

Aug 16, 2023

US asks Iran to stop selling drones to Russia

Washington raises issue in indirect talks aiming to de-escalate nuclear crisis

Andrew England, Middle East editor and Felicia Schwartz in Washington

The US is pushing Iran to stop selling armed drones to Russia as part of discussions on a broader “unwritten understanding” between Washington and Tehran to de-escalate tensions and contain a long-simmering nuclear crisis. The Biden administration has raised the issue with the Islamic regime at indirect talks in Qatar and Oman this year, according to people briefed on the matter.

The discussions have been taking place alongside negotiations on a prisoner exchange deal that led to Tehran transferring four Iranian-US citizens from prison to house arrest last week, the people said. According to an Iranian official and another person briefed on the talks, the US wants Iran to stop supplying drones to Russia, which Moscow is using in the war in Ukraine, as well as spare parts for the unmanned aircraft. The official added that Tehran — which officially denies its drones are being used in Ukraine — had repeatedly asked Moscow to stop deploying them in the conflict, but Washington wanted “more concrete steps”.

A successful prisoner swap and any additional informal agreements would mark US President Joe Biden’s first breakthrough on Iran after more than two years of on-off, indirect talks with the regime in which he has sought to revive the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers and ease tensions in the Middle East.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Tuesday the US is pursuing a strategy of deterrence, pressure and diplomacy to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and to hold Tehran accountable for human rights abuses and the “provision of drones to Russia for its use in the war against Ukraine”. “We’ve been clear that Iran must de-escalate to create space for future diplomacy,” Blinken said.

“The move of our detainees out of prison and to home detention is not linked to any other aspect of our Iran policy.” The negotiators hope the indirect talks will lead to both sides agreeing de-escalatory measures. For Iran, this would mean agreeing not to enrich uranium above 60 per cent purity, improving its co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and pledging not to target Americans, said the Iranian official and another person briefed on the talks.

In return, Washington would refrain from imposing fresh sanctions in some areas, with the exception of those involving human rights, and would not strictly police the sanctions already in place on oil sales, the Iranian official said. The Islamic republic wants the US to convince European allies to also ease pressure on Iran, as its economy is being strangled by US sanctions imposed after former president Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord. A concern in Tehran is that the UK, Germany and France, the European signatories to the 2015 deal, could seek to reimpose some sanctions once clauses from the nuclear accord that restricted Iran’s ballistic missile programme expire in October, the Iranian official said. “We’re very much concerned about October,” the official said.

“We expect [the US] to ease pressure on Iran from different sides.” The US and Iran have reached agreements on most issues, but the discussions — which are held through intermediaries — would continue in Qatar and Oman, particularly on Russia, the official added. The person briefed on the talks said the prisoner exchange was not contingent on the de-escalatory measures, but added that such a move could help build trust between the parties. A western official said the prisoner deal was a pre-requisite for any progress on the de-escalatory nuclear steps.

But the diplomat also cautioned that “there’s quite a big gap between having that conversation [on de-escalatory measures] with an Iranian and then the whole Iranian system being willing to implement it”. Under the exchange, Iran would release the four US prisoners transferred from Evin prison last week, plus one other American already under house arrest. The US would release five Iranians. Washington would also allow Tehran to access $6bn in frozen oil funds held in South Korea, once the money has been transferred to an account in Qatar, where it will be monitored to ensure that it is only used for non-sanctioned goods.

It is expected to be several weeks before the US nationals fly out of Tehran, as the transfer of the $6bn is sequenced with the prisoner releases. US officials will only be confident the deal has held once the prisoners held in Iran have cleared Iranian airspace, analysts said. Given how far Iran’s nuclear programme has advanced, the consensus among officials and analysts is that the 2015 accord is beyond repair. As a result, the Biden administration wants to contain the nuclear crisis until after the 2024 US presidential elections. If Biden wins, there could be an opening to secure a more comprehensive agreement, analysts said.

“The best-case scenario from the perspective of US policy is to keep things from getting worse and avoid a major escalation,” said Henry Rome, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank. “But there’s a lot of risk . . . and a lot of reasons to be wary that things can hold for that long.”

Previous diplomatic efforts to roll back Iran’s nuclear programme have failed, and US officials have warned that the cuntry’s advances in enriching uranium mean it could take as little as two weeks for Tehran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Iran has been enriching uranium at 60 per cent — its highest-ever level and close to weapons grade — for two years after aggressively increasing its nuclear activity in response to Trump’s measures.

The Biden administration engaged in EU-mediated talks with Tehran shortly after taking office to see if the 2015 deal could be saved. But twice Iran rejected proposals that the west believed could have revived the agreement. Analysts caution that even if Iran and the US agree to de-escalatory measures, the core issue of addressing the republic’s nuclear ambitions remains as challenging and complex as ever.

“This is a band-aid,” Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and north Africa programme at the Chatham House think-tank, said of the prisoner deal. “It will hold Israel back, keep tensions down and keep the nuclear cycle at bay — that’s it.” “It’s not going to bring back the nuclear accord [and] it’s not going to bring sanctions relief for Iran,” she said.

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