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Forecast Podcast: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicates plans to revive the Iran nuclear deal

Two members of the EU parliament are featured. The one on the left is in yellow, signing a document. Behind her is another woman, in a navy blue top with a blue and yellow scarf on. Both are wearing masks. Behind them is an EU flag.

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Agnese Boffano discuss how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicates plans to revive the Iran nuclear deal, plus more on European Union heads of state meeting in Versaille,  a presidential election in Turkmenistan and Colombia’s legislative elections, France lifting its vaccine passport rules.

These stories and more are also available in our weekly Forecast email and you can subscribe for free.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Jess Fino, Alex Moore, Irene Villora, Sophie Perryer and Agnese Boffano.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

JIMMY LOVAAS, HOST:

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is March 10th.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got heads of state from the European Union meeting in Versaille,  a presidential election in Turkmenistan, Colombia’s legislative elections, France lifting its vaccine passport rules and an update on the Iran nuclear deal. 

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

EU heads of state meet in Versaille

Information compiled by Jess Fino

JIMMY: European leaders will meet at the Versaille Palace outside of Paris for a two-day informal meeting starting Friday. 

And while an official agenda has not been released, they are expected to talk about the war in Ukraine and debate the European Union’s defense budget.

More specifically, leaders are expected to discuss Ukraine’s possible fast-track application to the European Union as well as a defense package to better coordinate defense spending and projects in sectors like aerospace. 

Now, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged his support for Ukraine following Russia’s attack and has been particularly active in trying to mediate the crisis, holding several long phone conversations with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. 

Finally, while some progress could be made during the meeting, it is unlikely Ukraine’s wish to join the EU quickly will be answered given the complex and long process that joining the bloc often entails.

Turkmenistan presidential election

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: On Saturday, Turkmenistan will hold the first of two rounds of early presidential elections in what is expected to be an orchestrated vote.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has run the Central Asian nation since 2006, has hinted he might retire before his current term ends in 2024. 

The 64-year-old recently told the country’s upper chamber of parliament that it’s time for “young leaders” to take power, with many analysts believing his son Serdar will succeed him. 

Serdar, currently a deputy prime minister, was nominated as a ruling party candidate in the election and has quickly risen through the ranks of government since 2016.

Now, despite the coincidence that the transition comes amid historic unrest in nearby Kazakhstan, the early election seems to have been prompted by yearslong rumors that President Berdymukhammedov is in poor health. 

The tightly choreographed handover also syncs up with his son’s 40th birthday, making him constitutionally able to run for president. 

Still, little is known about the presumed next leader, though not much in the totalitarian state is expected to change with his father expected to retain power behind the scenes.

Colombia legislative elections

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: On Sunday, Colombia will kick off its presidential election year with primary and legislative elections. 

Nearly 40 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, during which they will choose members of Colombia’s Senate and House of Representatives before May’s presidential election. 

Three coalitions — divided into center, left and right ideologies — will also choose their candidates for the first round of the presidential polls.

Now, the results of Sunday’s polls could hint at the voting trends expected in May amid a deep discontent among the population. 

DIscontent, due to high costs of living, an economy severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of effective government solutions to six months of protests last year.

France lifts vaccine passport rules

Information compiled by Sophie Perryer

JIMMY: Starting Monday, France will scrap some remaining coronavirus restrictions including the vaccine pass and mask mandate in most indoor areas. The changes come as cases continue to fall.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said conditions, including a decline in the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients, had been met to allow for lifting of restrictions. 

Masks will still be required on public transport, however, while medical facilities will continue to require visitors to wear a mask and carry a vaccine pass.

Now, by lifting these restrictions one month before the presidential election, President Emmanuel Macron is likely hoping to avoid further protests, as the vaccine pass has proved unpopular with voters opposed to state vaccination requirements. 

Such a move could also help Macron to attract voters from the likes of right-wing candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, who are both strong critics of the vaccine pass.

Iran nuclear talks

Information compiled by Agnese Boffano

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on talks aimed at restoring the Iran nuclear deal. For more on that I spoke with Factal Editor Agnese Boffano.

JIMMY: Hi, Agnese.

AGNESE: Hey, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Hey, there’s been a lot going on in the news lately, including negotiations over reviving the JCPOA. I guess to start, can you remind folks what that is exactly? 

AGNESE: Of course. So the Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as it is formally known, is an agreement that came into place in 2015, in Vienna, in which Iran agreed to dismantle most of its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars worth of sanctions relief. But of course, we all know that this came into jeopardy when, in 2018, former US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal. And in response we’ve been seeing Iran, since then, ramping up its nuclear program.

AGNESE: And what’s the latest? Where are they in the negotiation process?

AGNESE: So now we’re about 11 months into the negotiations and, just this week, an eighth round of talks ended. We’ve had positive comments from diplomats engaged in the negotiations, including the chief of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mario Grossi, who said that the negotiation process was actually in its final stages. And of course, there’s no exact date as to when we are expecting to see the deal come into effect. Also to keep in mind is that we’ve got the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, coming later in March, meaning that Tehran is likely to hold diplomatic work for a couple of weeks. But at the same time, I think Iranian sources are hopeful that we will at least see a form of renewal sometime mid-year, perhaps around the time when the IAEA Board of Governors are expected to meet, I believe in early June. 

JIMMY: Are there any specific sticking points that stand out to you? 

AGNESE: So I think there are quite a few sticking points, unfortunately, that are yet to be ironed out, something that was made particularly clear during Grossi’s visit to Tehran last week. Grossi and the Iranian nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami released a joint statement following the visit, saying that Iran would agree to hand over documents in the coming months regarding the IAEA questions on the issue of undeclared radioactive particles that were found at several Iranian nuclear sites. But, for example, the issue of the safeguard probes into the Iranian sites remains because Grossi is adamant on including this as an element of the Iran nuclear deal. But Iran, of course, has always emphasized that they wish the probes to be closed, given its claim that the country’s nuclear program is strictly peaceful. They don’t want to see this open again. But I’d say that the current climate in Ukraine and the Western sanctioning of Russian assets is probably the main difficulty that reviving the JCPOA is currently facing.

JIMMY: How has the Ukraine invasion impacted the talks?

AGNESE: Yeah, so the Ukraine invasion and the West’s subsequent sanctions on Russia risk placing the JCPOA revival efforts to another hold. We’ve had Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for Moscow’s relationship with Iran not to come under US sanctions, which is of course a demand that the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has subsequently dismissed, because he claims that the two issues are, and I quote, “not in any way linked together.” That’s what he said. So, already this deal has been long in the making and experts are now worried that we will have to wait even further as Tehran waits for Russian clarification on what its demands from the West are exactly. And the reason why Moscow is likely to use the Iran nuclear deal as a bargaining chip, if you like, is because Moscow obviously wants to see the repercussions on the West following the West’s heavy sanctioning of Russian oil. We’ve already seen gas prices go up significantly. So, a revived deal could see Iran putting its oil back on the market again and thereby ease the current crisis in oil prices. And of course, both the US and the chief negotiators of the E3 — so France, Germany and the UK — are likely to reject Russia’s demands to be exempted from the sanctions. But, Moscow is equally likely and capable to veto a nuclear deal altogether if this demand is not meant.

JIMMY: Well, considering all that, what do you think folks should be watching for next?

AGNESE: Well, now all parties have gone back to their respective countries so we will have to wait and see how this last, we hope, round of negotiations are going to be interpreted back home. Moscow, of course, as I said, has yet to clarify its specific position on the Iran nuclear deal. And likewise, Washington has yet to clarify its own terms on possibly alleviating Russian sanctions or not and how this will impact its trade with Iran. So we need to see how tensions between Russia and the West will continue regarding the invasion of Ukraine and how it’s going to impact the deal in the long run. While I think many are hoping for this eighth round of talks to be the last, I think we’re expecting a lot of backwards and forwards from the parties involved for at least a few months to come.

JIMMY: Well, I thank you for getting us up to speed on this, Agnese. It’s too important of a story to let fall between the cracks. Always appreciate your help.

AGNESE: Thanks, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Jess Fino, Alex Moore, Irene Villora and Sophie Perryer. Our interview featured editor Agnese Boffano and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, thanks for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. You can, of course, subscribe for free. And if you have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

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Featured photo: European Parliament members joined Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in calling for more EU defense, reduced energy dependence on Russia and solidarity with Ukraine in a plenary debate on March 9. (Photo: European Union 2022 – Source: EP)