March 18, 2022 | New York Post

Congress must stop Team Biden from giving Russia a financial lifeline in Iran deal

Washington appears determined to undermine its own economic-sanctions campaign against Russian President Vladimir Putin for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine — and aid a second dictatorship in the process.

The State Department confirmed Tuesday that the Biden administration would “not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation” of a new deal with Iran. In effect, Washington is guaranteeing Moscow a multibillion-dollar payout. Congress should stop President Joe Biden from throwing Putin this financial lifeline while he maims and kills innocent civilians.

Team Biden has been negotiating the revival of a weaker, shorter version of the Iran agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, since last year. It’s allowed Russia an outsized role in the talks, with the country’s head delegate, Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, providing frequent public updates. In one instance, Ulyanov praised Tehran’s negotiating style, candidly stating, “Iran got much more than it could expect.”

Last week, however, Moscow suddenly halted negotiations and demanded guarantees from the Biden administration that the West’s Ukraine sanctions wouldn’t lead Washington to penalize “civil nuclear cooperation” in Iran that the deal’s terms allow Russia to undertake.

While Russia’s gambit may seem part of the standard give-and-take of negotiations, Moscow’s real motive was financial. As Putin and his oligarchs start to feel the pain of Ukraine sanctions, Russia can’t afford to miss out on a major payday in Iran. Hidden in the 2015 nuclear deal is tacit permission for Russia to expand Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, a project worth some $10 billion to the Kremlin.

Tehran reportedly owes another $500 million to Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, for past work. Rosatom is the entity Russia has installed to assume operational control of Ukrainian nuclear power plants — most recently the largest plant in Eastern Europe, the Zaporizhzhya facility, as well as the shuttered Chernobyl plant — after Moscow’s irresponsible shelling and takeovers of the facilities.

As recently as a week ago, Team Biden was considering sanctions against Rosatom for its role in the Ukraine conflict. But when Moscow threatened to scuttle the Iran talks in retaliation, the administration quickly backed down.

Russia may also try to use Iran as a financial conduit to evade Ukraine sanctions. A revival of the nuclear deal would remove most US sanctions against hundreds of Iranian banks, companies and individuals. If sanctioned Russian banks, companies or individuals trade or transact with newly unsanctioned Iranian counterparts, the Biden administration could not “re-sanction” the Iranian entities for doing business with Russia — it would be a violation of the JCPOA.

If Iran nuclear negotiations are successful, the Bidenites will be under enormous pressure to ensure that Tehran receives economic benefits from the deal. They may decline to take action against US and other nations’ banks and companies to stop Russian transactions with Iran that would run afoul of Ukraine sanctions.

The Biden team may have agreed to much more than it bargained for when it permitted exemptions for Moscow’s nuclear work in Iran. At Tuesday’s press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price made clear that the administration hadn’t thought through the possibility for broader sanctions evasion, dismissing a reporter’s question on the subject as “a hypothetical wrapped in another hypothetical.”

Congress can play a role in preventing a cash windfall for Russia. Lawmakers should immediately pass legislation requiring the administration to sanction Rosatom. The bill should also include US sanctions against Iranian and any other foreign entities that trade or transact with sanctioned Russian entities. Congressional committees should hold hearings to ascertain whether Russia could use Iran to evade Ukraine restrictions.

This misguided Iran policy already threatens to undermine the strong international response to Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. President Biden should ask whether an expiring Iran nuclear deal is really worth giving Russia a financial lifeline.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. Ruggiero served in the US government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the National Security Council (2019-2021). Twitter: @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran Politics and Economy Iran Sanctions Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance