WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Thursday lifted sanctions against three former Iranian government officials and two Iranian companies involved in the country’s oil industry, a conciliatory move days before a potentially decisive round of nuclear talks in Vienna.
The administration has warned against reading too much in the movement. State Department spokesman Ned Price said there was “absolutely no connection” between the sanctions and talks between several world powers and Tehran.
These talks aim to bring the United States and Iran back into line with the 2015 agreement that aimed to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the end of numerous international sanctions that have harmed the country’s economy.
In the same statements announcing that the United States had lifted some sanctions, the State and Treasury Departments also said they were imposing new ones on a dozen Iranian individuals, entities and ships for bringing financial support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which are backed by Iranian.
A sixth round of nuclear talks begins in Vienna this weekend. Robert Einhorn, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, said the timing of the US announcements suggested a connection to the nuclear issue and that it could be a signal for US flexibility.
“What they’re saying to Iran,” he said, “is listen, we’re prepared to be reasonable here: when the sanctions are no longer justified, we are ready to lift them; but when they are justified, we are ready to impose them.
This message could also provide ammunition for Republicans in Congress who argue that President Biden, in his determination to renew the nuclear deal, will relinquish the influence over Iran that the sanctions provide.
During a daily briefing with reporters, Price insisted that there is “no connection, no connection” to the nuclear talks. But he added that the action was a reminder that US sanctions could still be waived.
“Whenever we impose sanctions, we hope that through a verified change in behavior, a verified change in status, we will one day be able to remove those sanctions,” Mr. Price said. “Because it means that somehow our political goals have been achieved. “
The United States has been negotiating with Iran since April, but only indirectly, through intermediaries in Vienna, due to Tehran’s refusal to speak directly with U.S. officials.
Officials in the Biden administration have said for weeks that they are ready to lift sanctions on Iran as part of a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 agreement, and that the main obstacle to a deal is whether Iran’s tough leadership is ready to respond by increasing support for its nuclear activities.
The 2015 deal, brokered by the Obama administration and several other world powers, traded Western sanctions relief in exchange for Iran’s agreement to accept limits and international oversight of its nuclear program for s ‘make sure he doesn’t try to build a weapon. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.
President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018 and hammered Iran with economic sanctions in what he called a “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran then began to expand its nuclear program and is now enriching uranium to levels and in quantities well beyond those allowed by the agreement.
Some European officials have been publicly optimistic about the prospects for a near-term breakthrough. But in an appearance Wednesday at the German Marshall Fund, Wendy Sherman, the assistant secretary of state, was cautious.
“I think there has been a lot of progress, but in my own experience, until the last detail is worked out – and I mean nailed down – we won’t know if we have a deal,” he said. Ms. Sherman said, according to a Reuters report.
A tentative and unofficial deadline is June 18, the date of the Iranian presidential election. Mr Einhorn called the prospects for a deal ahead of the vote “very, very slim”.
The election outcome is unlikely to have much of an effect on nuclear talks; however, the Iranian leadership narrowed the field of candidates to all but ensured the victory of a hard-line ally of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And US officials say Mr. Khamenei is ultimately the one who will decide to revert to honoring the original agreement in any case.
But Mr Einhorn said Mr Khamenei might hope to calibrate the timetable for the period after the election and before a new president is sworn in so that Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president, is seen as the one making politically painful nuclear concessions. in Washington. . His successor – most likely the current head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi – would then reap the economic benefits after the end of US sanctions.
Among the issues that have hampered the talks, Einhorn said, is the question of what Iran should do with advanced centrifuges – instruments that can enrich uranium to bomb-grade purity. – which he installed in violation of the nuclear agreement. Republicans in Congress have said centrifuges must be destroyed, but Iranians can hope to keep them without running them.
The sanctions that were lifted on Thursday were imposed on former Iranian officials and companies who, according to the State Department, had been “previously involved in the purchase, acquisition, sale, transport or marketing of Iranian petrochemicals “.
The State and Treasury Departments have not explained the exact rationale for removing these restrictions. Mr. Price was unable to provide further details except that the action had been taken in response to a “delisting petition”.
The new sanctions were imposed on a group of individuals and entities led by an Iranian identified as Sa’id Ahmad Muhammad al-Jamal. The State Department said it was involved in a “network of shell companies and middlemen” that sell oil and other commodities in the Middle East and elsewhere, funneling much of the proceeds to support the Houthis.
Mr Biden has sought to end the long-standing conflict in Yemen. The State Department reiterated on Thursday its growing frustration with the Houthis, who are at war with a Saudi-led Arab coalition.
“It is time for the Houthis to agree to a ceasefire and for all parties to resume political talks,” the State Department statement said, adding that the United States would continue to pressure the Houthis, including through targeted sanctions, so that they can move forward. these goals.