Russia accuses EU of jeopardising Iran nuclear deal talks

Russia has accused the EU of undermining efforts to revive an international nuclear deal with Iran by imposing sanctions on Tehran officials over alleged serious human rights abuses. 

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, on Tuesday denounced as “worse than a crime” an EU move to slap travel bans and asset freezes on eight Iranian security force commanders over a deadly 2019 crackdown on protesters.

Lavrov’s statement highlights the delicate state of talks on restoring the nuclear deal, which have already been complicated by an alleged foreign attack on Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility last weekend. Russia and EU powers had worked together to preserve the agreement after former US president Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018, a rare area of co-operation between Moscow and the European bloc as their wider relations fell to a historic nadir.

Lavrov told reporters at a press conference in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif that he was “amazed” to hear about the EU sanctions. The measures came as negotiators from the agreement’s remaining signatories — Iran, the EU, Germany, France, the UK, Russia and China — prepared to recommence talks in Vienna on the future of the accord. 

“If there is no co-ordination in the European Union, and the right hand does not know what the left is doing, it is a disaster,” Lavrov said. “But if this decision was deliberately made in the midst of negotiations . . . [then] this is a mistake — which, as you know, is worse than a crime.” 

“I hope that our European colleagues realise that this kind of action is unacceptable and will take some kind of action to prevent the negotiations from breaking down,” he added. 

The EU imposed sanctions on eight Iranian militia and police commanders on Monday, including the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, in the first human rights countermeasures imposed against the Islamic republic since 2013. The European bloc has previously accused Iranian authorities of “widespread and disproportionate use of force against non-violent protesters” during the 2019 demonstrations.

Lavrov also warned that negotiators “don’t have much time” to save the nuclear deal. Under the accord, Iran agreed to curbs on its atomic programme in exchange for the lifting of many International sanctions.

The US sent officials to negotiations in Vienna last week, after President Joe Biden indicated Washington was prepared to rejoin the deal if Iran came back into compliance with it. The Trump administration imposed tough sanctions on Iran, while Tehran retaliated with a series of escalating breaches of the accord’s limits in areas such as uranium enrichment.

Diplomats say talks made progress last week but stress that many obstacles remain, including the sequencing of moves by Washington and Tehran. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also faces political constraints from hardliners in both capitals and looming presidential elections in Iran in June.

“Precisely because these time pressures exist, those who want to disrupt and bury the JCPOA are engaged in known provocations,” Lavrov said, without naming any countries. 

Iranian foreign minister Zarif also attacked the EU for imposing sanctions in the aftermath of Sunday’s blackout at the underground Natanz site, which Tehran has suggested was due to Israeli sabotage. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which opposes the revival of the nuclear deal, has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility. 

In response to the EU sanctions, Iran immediately announced it would stop talks with European states over human rights issues, drugs trafficking through Iran to Europe and the status of refugees in Iran. Zarif said the EU lacked “credibility” and had become “gradually irrelevant” in the international scene after the bloc “was unable to carry out its commitments under the JCPOA”. 

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