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The Takeaway: Done deal? Iran nuclear talks appear back on track

Putin opens door to Syrian fighters in Ukraine; Egyptian students’ harrowing escape from Ukraine; Hamas keeps quiet on Ukraine while building mega-mosques; Lebanon’s cancer crisis; and more … in about 1,300 words.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

The Lead: US official says Iran nuclear deal ‘within reach’

Back on track: On March 15, the talks to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, appeared back on track, 10 days after Russia appeared to knock them off course. 

  • State Department spokesman Ned Price said on March 15 that “we are not going to sanction Russia for participating in nuclear projects that are part of the” nuclear deal.
  • Both Tehran and Washington, in their own ways, made clear to Moscow that the JCPOA will go ahead with or without Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin decided that it’s better to be engaged than "irrelevant," as Dmitri Simes anticipated in our podcast last week.
  • A senior US official told The Wall Street Journal on March 15 that there are only “a handful of issues left,” including scope of sanctions relief, and that a deal was “within reach.”
  • "The ball is in America’s court," said Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on March 15, after meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Tehran. "And if Washington responds to the few remaining important issues and refrains from killing the time any further, the parties can return to Vienna as soon as possible to conclude the talks."
  • On March 16, Iran released Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri, British nationals who had been imprisoned for spying. There are hopes and expectations that if there is a deal, Iran will release other Western nationals held in Iran, including four American citizens.

Lingering issues: The signals from Washington and Tehran are encouraging, if guarded, that a deal is imminent, as was expected before Lavrov’s wringer on March 5. But some issues, including the US designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), remain.

  • "Now that Russia has withdrawn its demands for a wider exemption from economic penalties over its invasion, Iran will likely continue to insist on more sanctions relief of its own," writes Mark Fitzpatrick. "It wants all Trump-era sanctions lifted, including those properly adopted for reasons of missile activity, human rights violations and support for terrorism. Iran has a debating point, because many of the blacklist designations were applied with the openly broadcast ulterior motive of preventing a future president from rejoining the nuclear deal. But many of the sanctions were legitimate and have no connection to the nuclear deal."
  • "Iran is likely still waiting for the United States to capitulate to its demand that the IRGC be removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations, notwithstanding recent reports that the IRGC's Quds Force is targeting former top officials of the Trump administration for assassination on US territory, and notwithstanding the recent missile attack on Erbil in northern Iraq," says former US Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker. "We may also see additional last-minute Iranian efforts to renegotiate key aspects of the deal, such as their recent demand that the agreed sequence of steps for returning to the JCPOA be reconfigured to their advantage."
  • Barak Ravid reports today that the Biden administration may be considering lifting or parking the IRGC’s FTO designation in return for commitments to de-escalate regional tensions.

Energy drives talks: The global crisis that drove oil’s price above $100 per barrel and natural gas prices to new highs in Europe may be giving some urgency to the Vienna talks. As we wrote last week, if there is an agreement in Vienna, Iran — in dire need of revenues and energy investment — would be open for business at a time the West is seeking to mitigate disruptions caused by the Ukraine conflict and sanctions on Russia.

Neighborhood watch: Meanwhile, the region is on edge over the impact of a nuclear agreement on Iranian behavior. In Iraq, the IRGC missile attack on Erbil on March 13 has sparked renewed concerns about malign Iranian influence as talks over government formation are ongoing for five months and counting, as Shelly Kittleson reports. And Israel and the UAE may be coordinating their appeals to Washington for increased security assistance, as Rina Bassist reports.

From our regional correspondents

1. Putin greenlights foreign fighters in Ukraine  

Following reporting, including by Al-Monitor, that Russia was in the early stages of recruiting foreign fighters for Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin publicly backed the idea on March 11. But as Kirill Semenov reports, it remains to be seen whether significant numbers of recruits will actually show up in Ukraine. Many of the foreign fighters aligned with Russia could come from the Syrian and Libyan theaters, where they have backed up Moscow’s interests, policies and partners.

Anton Mardasov, an Al-Monitor contributor and nonresident scholar in the Middle East Institute's Syria program, points out that the Kremlin is taking pains to broadcast to its domestic audience that the combat operations in Ukraine are limited. Any serious mobilization of foreign fighters would send the opposite message. There are also combat coordination and communication issues that Russia would have to contend with, not to mention the challenge of transferring Syrian and other recruits to Ukraine. 

2. Egyptian students make harrowing escape from Ukraine 

Some 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, including 150 Egyptian citizens evacuated to Romania. Amid the fast-growing exodus, Hagar Hosny interviewed Egyptian students about their days-long journey out of the war-ravaged country. 

A medical student in Odessa described his frantic rush to Romania: “How can someone pack what he acquired in seven years in just half an hour?” Another recounted living under the Russian bombings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro: “We did not know what the next seconds would bring us.” 

3. Hamas keeps quiet on Russia’s invasion … and builds mega-mosques 

Hamas has so far stayed silent on Russia’s war in Ukraine, reports Mai Abu Hasaneen. The Gaza-based militant group learned its lesson in Syria after Damascus shunned Hamas for its refusal to support President Bashar al-Assad during the country’s uprising. 

Plus, Ahmad Abu Amer reports on why Hamas worries that an Israel-Turkey rapprochement could affect the movement’s presence in Turkey.

And Hadeel Al Gherbawi explains why residents of the impoverished Gaza Strip are outraged over the construction of multimillion-dollar mosques.

4. Will Putin hold Syria aid hostage over Ukraine?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has aid workers and donor governments increasingly fearful that a cornered Moscow could lash out in Syria. US and European officials told Elizabeth Hagedorn they’re especially concerned that Russia will use its veto authority on the UN Security Council to dismantle what remains of cross-border operations into northwest Syria. 

For more Syria coverage, Nawwar Horani reports on a spike in child kidnappings in the southern province of Daraa, and Essam Sabry Hafez has this story on truffle harvesters dodging landmines in Syria’s desert. 

5. Cancer drugs run low as Lebanon’s crisis deepens

Cash-strapped Lebanon faces a dangerous shortage of drugs. The country’s long financial crisis has imperiled pharmaceutical imports and government subsidies for an ever-increasing number of medicines. Clement Gibon reports that “cancer patients find themselves in an unbearable situation where lifesaving medicine is becoming too expensive or is not available on the market.” As a result, many patients are turning to alternative, often harmful, treatments.

Multimedia this week: Moscow’s JCPOA stance, Syrian soap making, Russian-speaking Israelis

Listen: Andrew Parasiliti interviews Dimitri Simes, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, about the prospects for a diplomatic solution in Ukraine and why Russia’s stance on the JCPOA has emboldened Tehran. 

Watch: Syrian widows are making soap in Idlib province in hopes of improving the living conditions of their families. 

Listen: Ben Caspit and Ksenia Svetlova, a former Knesset member who grew up in Russia, discuss how Israel’s 2-million-strong Russian-speaking community views the war in Ukraine.