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Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov Interview to Kommersant.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov Interview to Kommersant Newspaper "My impression is that we’ve covered 90% of the path"

July 11, 2021


Elena Chernenko, Kommersant: It’s clear that the negotiations on the JCPOA restoration won’t be concluded before the Deal’s anniversary on July 14. When can we expect the news?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: Trying to suggest when the negotiations will be concluded is an old and quite unsuccessful story. Initially I offered our negotiations partners to aim at May 21 as a baseline. As you can see, it didn’t work out.

However, everyone admitted that it wasn’t a bad idea. It actually helped to take a more targeted proactive approach and improved the discipline of the negotiations process. But we decided not to collectively set the target date for the second time. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as you may recall, suggested aiming for the JCPOA’s sixth anniversary. In principle, this idea could have come to pass if the seventh round had been ongoing at the moment. But it hasn’t started yet.

Elena Chernenko: When can the negotiations process be resumed?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: As of today, no one, including Iranians, has an answer to that. It’s understandable: Iran has recently elected a new president, there’s a new team coming to the office, they need time to figure this out. The question is really critical for both the Iranian society and the establishment. It’s been a subject of a heated debate. So it’s not surprising.

A different issue is that it starts causing, I’d say, a certain irritation among other participants of the negotiations. Which is also clear, because leaving new agreements hanging for such a long time does no good for the cause.

We presume that the sooner the talks resume the better. I think they won’t start earlier than in ten days, maybe later.

Elena Chernenko: How will Russia benefit from the JCPOA restoration?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: There is both multilateral and bilateral dimension to that. If we’re talking about the former, in our foreign policy the issue of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction plays quite an integral part. It’s one of our priorities. Restoration of the JCPOA will ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program that Iran is undoubtedly entitled to. If we get to restore the Nuclear Deal, it’s going to be if not breakthrough, but surely a considerable success in strengthening the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Except for that, there’s hope that being able to clear the way on that matter, will present an opportunity for a regional security dialogue where all the states of the Persian Gulf could participate. Now the situation is intense. Yet we note a growing interest from the Persian Gulf countries to finally take a hold of this topic, attempt to alleviate tensions in the region, restore normalcy in relations, trust, security. I repeat: should we reach an agreement on JCPOA restoration, this will increase chances for progress in that regard.

For us it’s important, because while the US is on the other side of the Atlantic, Iran is our neighbor. The Persian Gulf is not that far from our borders. Obviously, it’s in our best interest that the situation there remains stable. We’ve developed a Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region. This idea has been around for a while, but now it’s growing in relevance even more. Maybe this will get us moving into the right direction.

As far as the bilateral track is concerned, restoration of the JCPOA would entail lifting of the critical mass of the US trade and economic sanctions against Iran. It would make the work of the Russian businesses – whether state-owned or private – more comfortable. This is also an important aspect.

Elena Chernenko: There have been six rounds on the JCPOA restoration. Is it possible to assess what part of the path has been covered? For instance, in percentage? In the end of May you said that the Equator, meaning the halfway point, has been crossed.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: Such assessments are inevitably subjective. But my impression is that we’ve covered 90% of the path. Relatively speaking, there isn’t much left. However, those 10% contain a number of politically sensitive issues that can hold the process back. This shouldn’t be excluded.

Elena Chernenko: And these issues are, for example…?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: I’m not in a position to disclose negotiations details. But some things have already leaked into the media. One of the very real questions, for instance, is whether there can be a guarantee that this saga that unfolded under Donald Trump presidency and brought disastrous results won’t happen again. It’s quite problematic.

Americans refer to their legislation saying they are unable to provide any guarantees. But in reality, and this is something I stressed multiple times during the Joint Commission meetings, such guarantee exists. And quite a serious one. If one side starts misbehaving, another one will be able to respond immediately. If Americans start doing that, then Iranians are most likely to reembark on the path of reducing their commitments under the JCPOA. This will be very unpleasant to everyone, including the US. And the other way around. So…

Elena Chernenko: But we’ve been there once and such logic didn’t work.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: True, it didn’t. But I’d like to hope that Americans are capable of learning from their mistakes. Opponents of the Nuclear Deal, especially those in the US, for the past three years had a chance to ascertain that the maximum pressure campaign brings the results diametrically opposite to what its initiators hoped for.

It all led to a point when Iran became the first non-nuclear-weapon-state to begin enriching uranium up to 60%. And now it starts producing uranium metal enriched up to 20%.

I don’t think anyone in the US is excited about that. But this is the direct result of the maximum pressure campaign – which is, to this day, ongoing. The new US Administration is ready to forego it, but only within the framework of the JCPOA restoration – sanctions-lifting for Iran’s return to full implementation of its nuclear-related commitments.

Elena Chernenko: Has the sequence been identified for what each side has to do to restore the Deal? Should the US lift post-2018 sanctions or Iran restore the full implementation of its commitments to limit its nuclear program? Someone has to go first or both can do it simultaneously? Even before the Vienna Talks started the Russian experts presented a scheme, so to say, a ‘roadmap’ of what the JCPOA restoration can look like. Did the negotiators in Vienna manage to come up with something similar?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: I think I can give a positive answer to this question. Such a plan exists. It’s not agreed upon yet, but its contours are quite visible, and the conceptual framework is understandable for all. Everyone accepts that, but there are details to be clarified within this framework – who does what and when. To some degree the US met Iran halfway. Tehran’s position is also quite pragmatic. The key is that the steps needed to be taken by each side are clear

– there’s almost a full clarity on that. But the sequence itself is yet subject to discussion, although, I repeat – the contours are there, and no one seems to have objections in that regard.

Elena Chernenko: Who has to make the first step – the US or Iran?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: Please let me refrain from answering this question given the sensitivity of the issue. I can outline the Russian view: it’s obvious that the US has to take the first step because they misbehaved, left the Deal and nearly destroyed it, threatening the entire world with exterritorial sanctions.

Elena Chernenko: How do you like working with the new US Administration? Do you feel they are results-oriented?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: My colleagues and I enjoy working with the new US negotiators. In times of Donald Trump’s Administration, we rarely had a proper conversation. I feel like now the US takes quite a pragmatic and overall balanced stance.

We do have significant differences on several issues, but in general they are demonstrating a business-like approach that paves the way to reaching agreements. I think that in this case such positive impression can be explained, first and foremost, by the unity of purpose – a collective aspiration to restore the Nuclear Deal.

Elena Chernenko: Is my understanding correct that now the Vienna Talks are focusing solely on restoring the JCPOA in its original shape, as it was concluded in 2015? No ‘JCPOA+’ with extra demands from the US on the table?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: Let me get back to a previous question of the role of the US. Their position was instrumental in rejecting a harmful idea of the ‘JCPOA+’ that was actively promulgated by the E3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom). If the task had been to restore the JCPOA and add some commitments on top of that, the negotiations wouldn’t have started at all.

The US understood that and pragmatically refrained from the temptation to impose new demands on Iran. In circumstances when Russia and China also pronounced against the ‘JCPOA+’, our European colleagues also opted for a more rational approach. That’s why from the very outset we reached an understanding that the goal of the negotiations is to restore the original JCPOA. Nothing more, nothing less.

However, in reality we witness that everyone, except for us and the Chinese, are trying to add something or take something off. In such cases we have to remind them that this goes beyond the framework of the agreed goal of the negotiations. We intend to keep doing that.

Elena Chernenko: What’s the Russian position on Iran having revised the conditions of what it had been doing before in accordance with the JCPOA in terms of transparency measures with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? The longer it lasts, the harder it will be to verify what has been going on there from the moment Iran had stopped implementing the Additional Protocol and additional verification and monitoring measures provided by the JCPOA. Even when Iran comes back to all of that.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: Answering your question I’d like to remind you that after the US had withdrawn from the Deal and had launched the maximum pressure campaign, Iran was demonstrating colossal patience and continued to fully implement its commitments under the JCPOA for one year. They stopped only after the US had attempted to impose the oil embargo. Only then they started deviating from the JCPOA. In principle Iranians have been explaining it by the Nuclear Deal provisions that allow for one side to partially or fully cease implementation in case of another side’s significant non-performance.

We’ve always abstained from harsh criticism towards Iran. We understood that it’s their way to react to the atrocious maximum pressure campaign.

As a rule, when we commented on Tehran’s stepping away from Nuclear Deal’s provisions, we used the word ‘regret’. But now it seems there are reasons for concern. Iran seems to be going too far. For the first time in practice of the non-nuclear-weapon-states there’s enrichment up to 60%, there’s uranium metal. The sooner we agree on how to restore the JCPOA, the faster we eliminate that.

As far as transparency is concerned, this is yet another result of the maximum pressure campaign, as well as of acts of sabotage – diversion at Natanz facility, murder of an Iranian scientist. Iran reacted by reducing cooperation with the IAEA. Again, the result turned out to be the exact opposite of what the masterminds behind this adventurism seemingly hoped for. Instead of slowing down Iran’s nuclear program, those acts only instigated its speedy development, including production of advanced centrifuges etc. Iran made a significant step forward in the nuclear sphere and also reduced the level of transparency, limited the IAEA verification activities in accordance with the law adopted last year.

At the moment our Western colleagues are concerned about the expiration of the temporary Technical understandings reached between the IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi and Tehran last February dealing with functioning of cameras on Iranian facilities. In the end of June Iranians decided not to extend these understandings. I think there’s no need to over-dramatize. On one condition: if the cameras continue working, and their footage is being stored. Judging by public statements from Iran, that is what’s planned. I’d like to draw particular attention to the fact that recording and preserving the video footage corresponds not only to the IAEA’s, but also to Iran’s interests. Without that, there would be a gap in the IAEA’s knowledge of Iranian nuclear program that would result in having more questions to Iran that it would have hard time responding to.

Elena Chernenko: Tehran counts on Russia’s support in Vienna, while, as far as I know, it doesn’t pay the bills for Bushehr NPP fuel, construction of the second unit. It’s not Moscow’s style to go public with such things, but why wouldn’t Russia toughen its stance on Iran allowing for such an improper behavior?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: You’re right, we’re not accustomed to going public with such things, and this situation is not going to be any different. What I’d say is that there is such an issue, and Iranians acknowledge its existence. Quite recently President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, while speaking at the Parliament, brought this problem to the legislators’ attention. I know that the State Atomic Energy Corporation ‘Rosatom’ takes this issue into consideration in their practical work. But it’s important to understand that in case we get to agree on restoring the Nuclear Deal, it’s likely that as early as beginning of August the US sanctions might be lifted. Iran will be able to freely trade oil, and not only oil. Consequently, its treasury shall start filling with considerable revenues. Use of these funds should be prioritized for paying off this debt that has reached a significant figure already.

Elena Chernenko: The other day Rafael Grossi said there was no progress on the issue of uranium particles discovered in undeclared facilities in Iran. Do you believe it’s realistic to strive for progress on the matter now, or it would be better to wait while the JCPOA story is concluded and Iran is ready to interact with the international community? Or is this unrelated and Iran should, just as any country, respond to the Agency in case there are traces of undeclared nuclear activity?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: Unfortunately, what you’re referring to has been an irritating factor in the IAEA’s work for the past two years. This is especially unpleasant as we’re not talking about anything substantial, something of utmost importance.

It’s a common knowledge – and there have been the IAEA reports on the matter – that in the beginning of the century Iran did allow some deviations from its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the Agency, conducting certain nuclear activity that it kept secret. But this activity was wrapped up by Iran itself some 15-17 years ago, long before this issue even came to light. Moreover, this activity wasn’t overly successful.

Uranium particles, discovered by the Agency after scrutinizing the so-called Netanyahu’s archive stolen from Iran by the Israeli secret service, turned into a disproportionally overblown issue. As I imagine, the Agency should have clarified this via bilateral channel with Iranians, just as with any other IAEA Member State, without bringing it to the Board of Governors.

Elena Chernenko: Why?

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov: These episodes carry no proliferation risk. And no one can state that such risks exist.

But there’s another aspect. As you rightfully pointed out, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA has to be abided by. The safeguards need to be observed. And this brings the question into a different dimension – of Iran’s implementation of its safeguards commitments. Iran needs to provide answers to these questions to the maximum possible extent.

Obviously, its almost impossible to recollect the course of events that took place 20 years ago. And we can judge by other cases that full clarity is unattainable here. However, there are answers to be given. Answers that would satisfy the Agency. The Agency, in its turn, shouldn’t put unnecessary emphasis on these moments unless there is ground to believe there are proliferation risks in place. So, on this matter everyone needs to demonstrate flexibility and common sense. It’s no good that these generally minor issues overshadow the work on the Iranian track and incline our colleagues to start discussing a possibility to table certain resolutions for consideration of the Board of Governors. If this is to happen, Iran’s reaction will be quite predictable. If for some having one law of the Iranian Parliament isn’t enough, they can end up having another one, but all of this is taking us into an impasse. It’s important to mention that Russia has been playing the leading role to prevent the events from unfolding under this negative scenario. So far we’ve been succeeding in each and every case.