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As Russia’s assault on Ukraine grinds on and fears over the deployment of chemical or nuclear weapons grows, Iran nuclear talks are picking up speed down in Vienna. The aim of these negotiations, ostensibly, is to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which the US withdrew from under President Donald Trump in 2018, though negotiations appear to be lubricated by Iranian oil. With Russian oil and gas now under sanction, though still flowing, Western states are desperate to feed their fossil fuel addiction. TRNN contributor David Kattenburg speaks with CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin and Executive Director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Elena Sokova about the complicated geopolitical pressures the Russian war in Ukraine and US domestic politics are putting on discussions regarding the Iran nuclear deal and a nuclear-free Middle East.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization working to end US wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect US tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs. Her most recent book is entitled Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Elena Sokova has resumed the role of Executive Director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. She was the first Executive Director of the VCDNP in 2011-2015 and afterwards served as Deputy Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She writes and lectures widely on nuclear disarmament issues.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


David Kattenburg:     Hello, and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m David Kattenburg. As Russia’s assault on Ukraine grinds on, killing and maiming tens of thousands, threatening to go chemical or nuclear, it’s clear that brutal armed conflicts sometimes have salutary effects. As the war rages on, down in Vienna, Iran nuclear talks are picking up speed, and there seems to be a connection. The aim of negotiation is to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, or Iran nuclear deal. The deal’s first incarnation was struck in July 2015. It seems to be solid. Iranian compliance was confirmed twice in 2015 by the Trump Administration. Still, under dogged pressure from Israel and its patrons in US Congress, in the spring of 2018 Trump reneged on the deal. Talks to revive it are now underway in Vienna under the aegis of the five UN member states formally franchised to wield nuclear weapons, namely the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany and the EU are part of those talks.

Not surprisingly, negotiations appear to be lubricated by Iranian oil. With Russian oil and gas now under sanction, though still flowing, Western states are desperate to feed their fossil fuel addiction. Joining me to talk about all this today are Medea Benjamin and Elena Sokova. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the US-based peace group Code Pink. Among powerful people, Medea has loudly but peacefully publicly ambushed Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, and military officers waiting to attend the Halloween party at the Obama White House. Medea Benjamin is the author of 10 books, the most recent Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Medea Benjamin joins us from Washington, DC.

We’re also joined by Elena Sokova. Elena Sokova is the executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Sokova co-authored a 2015 report entitled The Case for Highly Enriched Uranium-Free Zones. Sokova writes and lectures widely on nuclear disarmament issues and on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology. Elena Sokova joins us today from Vienna.

Thanks to the two of you for joining me today here on The Real News. Elena Sokova, let’s start with you. Can you tell me where the Iran nuclear talks stand at this moment? And it might be useful to our viewers and listeners to super quickly review just the history of the deal. I’ve kind of summarized the history of the deal, but if you feel inclined, you can do so just concisely, and tell us where the deal and talks stand at the moment.

Elena K. Sokova:     Thank you, first of all, for the invitation. I’m delighted to be here today and also to meet Medea virtually. If we go back to the original 2015 Iran deal, or the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action as was negotiated in 2015, the goal for this whole deal was to avoid further progression of Iran in building up its nuclear expertise and its capacity to produce materials of quality and quantity that could be used for a nuclear weapons program. It took the Obama Administration several years to negotiate it. And you’re correct, from the very start we had EU3+3 and Iran negotiating a deal. The original Iran deal, the best part of it, was that it not only established limits on the Iranian nuclear program, its peaceful part, which is certainly connected to what could be utilized for military programs. But it also established an extremely intrusive verification system much beyond regular inspections that are usually done by the International Atomic Energy Agency in other countries with nuclear programs, peaceful nuclear programs.

When Trump withdrew from the deal, because he didn’t like the deal from the start, I don’t know how much he knows about the deal, inside and out of it, but it was something that he from the presidential campaign said that he would try to remove and negotiate at that time a better deal. Obviously it didn’t happen, but what the deal generated is a gradual Iranian dissatisfaction with the fact that the sanctions were put back on Iran. And it started to chip away from the key points of the Iran deal from 2015, started enriching uranium to higher numbers, started to stockpile it in larger amounts, started using additional centrifuges that are used to generate that enriched uranium.

David Kattenburg:     Iran had been complying with the deal prior to the United States withdrawing, am I correct?

Elena K. Sokova:       Absolutely. There were no problems regarding its adherence to the deal, and every single dot was checked and, as I mentioned, there was a very intrusive and very elaborate verification system that was put in place to ensure the compliance with the deal. But after the withdrawal and the reintroduction of sanctions, Iran, as I mentioned, started to add new things that were not consistent within the JCPOA, possibly also as a pressure for the European countries and other participants in the deal to get back and remove sanctions. Some of these developments were quite worrisome. If we have time, and if you are interested, I’d be more than happy to talk about where we are now, where we currently are in terms of the Iranian capabilities, and what they have amassed since the 2018 withdrawal of the US.

David Kattenburg:     Please do. I mean, I’m curious to know, I think everybody wants to know, what are Iran’s ambitions? Iran has consistently said it has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon. Now it’s transgressing the original deal because the US reneged, sanctions came back. Where is it now, and what are its ambitions, do you think? Where are the talks at this moment? There’s a lot to talk about.

Elena K. Sokova:     Yeah, it’s a lot to talk about. But in terms of what Iran has, since 2018, able to do, far beyond what was agreed in the 2015 Iran deal, is A, to increase enrichment level of uranium. The original JCPOA, the limit was established at 3.67% of uranium-235. This is the type of enriched uranium that you use only for nuclear power plants, like for fuel. Gradually it started enriching first to 20%, and more recently to 60% uranium 235. This material is also considered highly enriched uranium, and something that with some additional steps could easily be converted to enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons. That is one of the biggest worries in terms of what has changed since the Trump Administration withdrawal and Iran responding with some of its own steps.

Moreover, what we’ve seen in the last three or four months is the build up not only of the level of enrichment, but also of the material that they now have in their possession. All these machines keep spinning and producing more materials. So what we had, say, in November, is 17-plus kilograms in Iran, and now the most recent report from the IAEA says they have more than 33 kilograms. That is becoming pretty serious. You add another, I don’t know, it’s hard to tell exactly, but with that speed it may soon, within a couple of months, have enough material for at least one nuclear device.

David Kattenburg:     But they’re still under inspection. Is the IAEA still inspecting sites?

Elena K. Sokova:      That’s correct. They’re still inspecting. They’re still there, the IAEA. And they continue to have access to most places in Iran. But there are few places where they do not have specific access, and that actually relates to one of the facilities that were hit, allegedly, by Israel, near one of the enrichment plants. So even though the cameras are still working, the agency doesn’t have access to the data from that camera because it needs to come there physically and pick it up and read the data. Iran has said that it will eventually provide it. But overall on the whole, there is pretty good functioning still, a system of various safeguard measures in place in Iran.

David Kattenburg:    So very quickly, Elena Sokova, can you tell me where the talks stand at the moment? I mean, I’d like to explore with Medea and yourself what your thoughts are on Iran’s ambitions. But tell me where the talks stand now, in a nutshell.

Elena K. Sokova:       They actually, from what we understand, are at a moment where the deal could move forward very quickly. Even a couple of weeks ago, it seemed to have been on a path to almost finalizing a few little things and signing the deal. Then, as you know, the war in Ukraine happened, and the Russian foreign minister at some point introduced a demand that Russian implementation, both Iran deal and the Russian other economic cooperation with Iran, should be exempt from sanctions, US investment sanctions.

That was at that point considered one of the major impediments to the finalization of the deal. Ironically, it was actually Russia who played a very, very good, positive role in both negotiating the original 2015 deal and the most recent negotiations that lasted, I don’t know, for six, seven months lately, that led to almost concluding the deal. However, as we all also know that, in the end, it turns out that the Russians work on the JCPOA deal, because Russia is a key player there. It takes away that enriched uranium. It provides other services for the implementation. It’s critical, and that is going to be exempt.

So what I understand now, the biggest issue is not about Russia’s standing on the position, but it is the designation, or removal of the designation, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the US list of terrorist organizations. That is one of the remaining last contention points. And where are we going to go with that? It’s a big question mark.

David Kattenburg:      Medea Benjamin, you’ve been to Iran. You’ve visited Iran on how many occasions?

Medea Benjamin:      Three.

David Kattenburg:      Three times. Wow. Medea, what are your thoughts on all this? And I’m wondering what your estimation of Iran’s ambitions are? Do you think Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon?

Medea Benjamin:       I think Iran wants a deterrent to being attacked, and sees the examples of countries that gave up their ambitions and how they were invaded, as opposed to the case of North Korea, let’s say, that has nuclear weapons. On the other hand, I think Iran wants to certainly get the sanctions lifted. It feels that it is quite hypocritical that Israel plays such an important role in all this when Israel has nuclear weapons that nobody inspects, that it’s not part of a non-proliferation treaty nobody talks about. And so it does feel that it is singled out.

But the way things stand right now, the sanctions have hurt Iran a lot, and President Raisi campaigned that he would improve the economy. The only way he can really improve the economy is by getting these sanctions lifted, even if it’s only temporarily. I do want to fault the Biden Administration for taking this long on the deal, because it’s something that many of us expected would happen literally in his first week of office. He would just sign executive order, we’re back in the deal. So all this time has created more problems, and of course now we have the issue of Ukraine.

I think that it also has given time for the Republicans to build up their opposition. We’ve seen in the last week that 47 Republicans sent a letter to Biden. That’s every Republican in the Senate except for Rand Paul saying that they have not been informed of what this deal is, they think it’s going to be a bad deal, they think it’s going to be even worse than the 2015 deal. They are upset that it doesn’t include the issues of ballistic missiles or Iran’s role in the region, and that they will do everything they can to try to see this either not come into being now, or they will reverse it as soon as they have more control.

It’s important for people to understand that even under Obama this was not a treaty, meaning it never got ratified by the Senate, which in the case of a treaty needs two thirds. So he did not have that support. So really it is an executive agreement with UN Security Council approval that gives it a lot more weight. In this case, it will be going to Congress. They have a chance to look at it, and they won’t be asked to ratify it, but they could reject it, they could accept it, or they could do nothing. And, well, our hope would be that they accept it. But more realistic is that they do nothing and that this agreement then could go into effect. But it’s not done until it’s done. We’ve been hearing, as Elena says, for weeks now, it’s a matter of days. We hope that is true, but given how volatile politics are at this moment, we won’t pull out the champagne until the deal is signed.

David Kattenburg:    Of course the whole core of the Republicans’ arguing points and Trump’s arguing points and Israel’s arguing points and even the EU is that Iran is a malign player. Iran has proxies throughout the region. It supports Bashar al-Assad and it supports Hezbollah and Hamas, that are labeled as terrorist organizations, and it’s advancing a nuclear program, and it’s just a threat to the whole region. It’s the biggest terrorist state on the planet. This is what those folks amongst the Republicans argue. It’s, of course, what Israel argues. What’s your thought on that?

Medea Benjamin:    My thought is that there’s just way too many malign players in the Middle East. It’s the US, Israel, Iran, the Saudis, and I can go on and on. I mean, the Middle East, the poor people there have been suffering for decades from all of these malign players, and it is important that this deal be signed so that the US and Iran can talk about other issues. It’s interesting that during this time, there’s actually been talks between the two mortal enemies of Iran and Saudi Arabia, that Iran just broke off after the Saudis executed 81 people in one day, including 41 of them Shia – And Iran is Shia – And many of those Shia in Saudi Arabia have been discriminated against since the time of the founding of the Saudi regime.

So I don’t want to justify Iran’s actions in the region, but I want to put them in the context of these proxy wars that have been going on. If you look at the catastrophic situation in Yemen, for example, you’ll see that it was the Saudis who first got involved in an internal conflict in Yemen. And later on, and quite reluctantly I would say, the Iranians got involved. And then the US pours weapons into the entire region, making great profits for US weapons companies but making even more volatile situations throughout the Middle East. Then there’s the US $3.8 billion-a-year support for the Israeli military that just adds more fuel to the fire.

I think, given the situation in Ukraine, maybe people are a bit more sensitive about wanting to calm conflicts in other parts of the world like in the Middle East. That could act in favor of this nuclear deal, and could also act in favor of the Biden Administration following up the nuclear deal with more talks with Iran. As long as we can keep the Republicans at bay, this could be a positive thing for the region.

David Kattenburg:     I’d like to ask you a question, Medea, and then after Medea, Elena, you can comment. Let’s talk about this elephant in the room. It always astonishes me that these Iran nuclear talks go on and on and on. You’re reading the reports in the papers and media, and there’s never, ever, ever any reference to Israel’s own nuclear weapons arsenal. And Israel launches routine assaults on Syria. Just back in February, it launched an assault on an Iranian drone factory in Western Iran and apparently almost wiped out Iran’s fleet of drones. Just did it. And Iran reportedly responded by attacking the Iraqi, the base in Erbil where the assault apparently reportedly came from, engineered by the Israelis. Should Israel’s own nuclear arsenal be outed? Should Israel be brought into these Iran negotiations in the context of a larger, nuclear-free Middle East conversation? It’s [crosstalk].

Medea Benjamin:     Yes. Will they? No. And it is, I think, to a large extent because Israel has the cover of the United States. Not only does the US give Israel massive amounts of money every year – And let’s remember, Israel is a middle income country, it shouldn’t be getting any money from the United States – But Israel has also played an outsized influence trying to stop the US from getting this deal with Iran. We might remember that during Obama’s time, Netanyahu came and addressed a joint session of Congress to say that we shouldn’t get into the deal.

Then we have the outsized influence of Israel in convincing Trump to pull out of that deal. And now we have enough Naftali Bennett who has not been so public in trying to influence the US, but certainly behind the scenes has been trying to do it. This is very problematic for US politics, but it also does show to, not only Israel, but people throughout the Middle East – And Elena, you’d have a better sense of this in terms of throughout the world – How these international agreements and international law and all of this, it’s all selective and it’s all hypocritical. So I think the fact that Israel is sheltered by the United States – And, let’s face it, the Western countries as well. You don’t hear European countries wanting to out Israel in terms of making them admit how many nuclear weapons they have and forcing them to join international agreements. But I would love to hear Elena on this as well.

David Kattenburg:     Yeah. Elena, what are your thoughts on this?

Elena K. Sokova:      I wanted to add that one of the things that we are discussing here is whether it makes sense to engage Israel in these talks or not. I would say no, because it’s complicated enough. And if we also want to look at the example of previous efforts to negotiate, or at least start negotiations, of first the nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, or WMD-free zone in the Middle East, these processes have proven to be very unsuccessful, prolonged, and dragging for years. We never were able even to formally launch the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East despite the number of years spent on trying to revive it.

So bringing in Israel or bringing other issues in the discussion of the renewal of the Iran deal is not advisable at all. If we want to make progress, this issue needs to be kept separately. Otherwise we will just drown in and never reach anything. And I think I demonstrated by saying how much Iran made progress in its enrichment program. It also gained additional experience in using more advanced centrifuges, also in experimenting with metal, highly enriched uranium. These are key skills and knowledge that Iran is gaining. And what we need to do is to limit its capacity to move forward and make even more progress. So I would keep those two things apart.

David Kattenburg:    Elena, do you not think, it’s hard to imagine, but if Israel’s nuclear arsenal were to be outed, or if it were to cease to practice this policy of opacity – And I’ve even read that certain Israeli officials are arguing that Israel should cease to be opaque about its own nuclear arsenal – That if Israel were to come in, as it were, would this not be added impetus to Iran to make that extra added efforts to just comply, which it already was before 2018?

Elena K. Sokova:     Oh, I’ve heard these calls on Israel to admit its nuclear program, but I’m not sure we’re there yet because there will be additional implications in the region. And many of these diplomatic talks [inaudible] that we’re dancing around this big elephant in the room issue for a number of years, it’s going to be extremely difficult to contain. And I’m sure that the formal admittance of nuclear weapon status by Israel would also have many of the other players in the Middle East who have been, so far, more or less restrained in their own nuclear weapons ambitions… I just cannot see how this can be solved that easily. It’s the issue we’ve been dancing around for a long time. But maybe Medea also has some of the points on it.

David Kattenburg:     Medea?

Medea Benjamin:        Well, as I said, it’s just not going to happen because Israel has the cover of the US and the Western European countries. But I do think that even if this deal is sealed, it is still a dangerous path ahead because it is not a treaty, and the next president could indeed pull out of it. And there we’re back again where we were when Trump pulled out. And Iran understands this very well. I think it wants to get the relief it can in the meantime. Oil prices are so high, that could be a lot of income for a government that is in great need of cash.

But I think for the public to understand that without an equal treatment of all of the players in the Middle East, whether it’s vis-a-vis their nuclear programs, or their ballistic missile systems, or their “malign” activities in the region, there will never be peace. And that’s why it’s important for us to call out these hypocrisies and to really call for policies that treat all the countries equally and try to get all in compliance with not only nuclear agreements, but with all kinds of agreements for disarmament and peace.

David Kattenburg:      Was my original premise that I began this conversation with, that the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the sudden crisis over accessibility to oil and oil pricing, that it’s lubricating the Iran nuclear talks. Because people see, obviously, Iran as a source of oil. Is this premise correct, Elena?

Elena K. Sokova:       I would say in the current situation it is correct. It’s actually adding more kind of impetus for parties to see the success of sealing the deal. But it wasn’t that much of the case before the Ukraine war because, actually, Russia, I was surprised myself, I didn’t follow the statistics. Actually Russia was one of the big exporters of Russian oil, even to the US. I’m not even speaking about the dependence of Europe, both on Russian gas particularly and on oil. So there is, obviously, given the sanctions that are put on Russia nowadays, the importance of restoring the deal gets a new dimension. I think Europe is particularly interested in having that to succeed because of the potential of Iranian oil at some point replacing some of the Russian oil and gas.

But just one point on the restoration of the deal, assuming it is signed within the week or so. It’s not that simple as it was with the original Iran deal, because there will be step-by-step different steps on the US Western side and Iran side. You cannot just magically overnight, let’s go back where we dropped off before Trump withdrew. And for even the Iranian oil to start really flowing somewhere, it’ll take time. First of all, even after the signature of the deal, you would need at least two, three months just to prepare for these consecutive steps to happen, and one item that is achieved and Iran then rolls back some of the program. Then we have the next, sanctions relief and other activities, and then the next step in Iran. So it’s a much more complex dance and much more fragile dance that we’ll have to do as compared to the 2015 deal.

David Kattenburg:     Medea, final points?

Medea Benjamin:      I am worried that, given the Ukraine crisis, that there is more concern about Iran and its relationship to Russia, and that can add some more snags into this issue. We do have the supreme leader in Iran who says that it was the US that created the Ukraine crisis. But the Iranian government is trying to be very careful, abstaining at the UN vote about Ukraine and trying to not make this issue one about Russia and Ukraine. So hopefully that can be separated out. I think the world is in need of a diplomatic success and that this would be a tremendous gain, not only for Iran, but for all people who want to see the use of diplomacy over conflict. And perhaps it would give some momentum to the peace process with the US and Russia. And that’s a big hope, but let’s keep hope alive.

David Kattenburg:    Thank you for that closing idea, Medea. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the US-based peace group Code Pink. Her most recent book is entitled Inside Iran: The Real History And Politics Of The Islamic Republic Of Iran. Elena Sokova is the executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation. She writes and lectures widely on nuclear disarmament issues.

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David Kattenburg is a journalist, human rights advocate, and science educator based in Breda, Netherlands.