WASHINGTON – The Biden administration lifted sanctions on three former Iranian government officials and two Iranian companies involved in the country’s oil industry on Thursday, a conciliatory gesture days before a potentially decisive round of nuclear talks in Vienna.
The administration cautioned against over-reading the move. Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, said there was “absolutely no connection” between the sanctions and the discussions between various world powers and Tehran.
Those talks are intended to bring the United States and Iran back to compliance with the 2015 agreement that sought to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for ending many of the international sanctions that have tightened 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 people, entities and vessels to provide financial support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran.
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 could be a sign of US flexibility.
“What they’re saying to Iran,” he said, “is, look, we are prepared to be reasonable here: when sanctions are no longer justified, we are prepared to lift them; but when they are justified, we are prepared to impose them. “
That message could also provide ammunition for Republicans in Congress who argue that President Biden, in his determination to renew the nuclear deal, will sacrifice the leverage over Iran that sanctions provide.
In a daily briefing with journalists, Price insisted that “there is no link, no connection” to the nuclear talks. But he added that the action was a reminder that US sanctions could always be reversed.
“Every time we impose sanctions, we are hopeful that through a verified change in behavior, a verified change in status, we can one day remove those sanctions,” Price said. “Because that means that one way or another, our policy goals have been met.”
The United States has been negotiating with Iran since April, albeit only indirectly, through intermediaries in Vienna, due to Tehran’s refusal to speak directly to US officials.
Officials in the Biden administration have said for weeks that they are prepared 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 hardline leadership you are prepared to respond by climbing. support 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 monitoring of its nuclear program to ensure it did not attempt 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 hit Iran with economic sanctions in what he called a “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran then began expanding its nuclear program and is now enriching uranium to levels and quantities far beyond those allowed by the agreement.
Some European officials have been publicly optimistic about the prospects for short-term breakthrough. But in an appearance Wednesday at the German Marshall Fund, Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state, was cautious.
“I think a lot of progress has been made, but in my own experience, until the last detail is nailed, and I mean nailed, we won’t know if we have a deal,” Sherman said, according to a Reuters report.
A provisional and unofficial deadline is June 18, the date of Iran’s presidential elections. Einhorn called the prospects for a deal before that vote “very, very slim.”
The election outcome is unlikely to have much effect on the nuclear talks; However, Iran’s leadership restricted the field of candidates to almost guarantee the victory of a hardline ally of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And US officials say that ultimately, it is Khamenei who will decide whether to return to compliance with the original agreement in any case.
But Einhorn said Khamenei could hope to gauge the timing for the post-election period and before a new president takes the oath so that Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president, is seen as the one making politically painful nuclear concessions to Washington. . His successor, probably the current chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, would reap the economic benefits after the end of the US sanctions.
Among the issues that have bogged down the talks, Einhorn said, is the question of what Iran should do with advanced centrifuges, instruments that can enrich uranium to bomb purity, which it has installed in violation of the nuclear deal. Republicans in Congress have said the centrifuges must be destroyed, but the Iranians can hope to keep them without operating them.
The sanctions that were lifted on Thursday had been imposed on former Iranian officials and companies that the State Department said in a statement had been “previously involved in the purchase, acquisition, sale, transportation or marketing of Iranian petrochemical products.”
The State and Treasury Departments did explain the exact justification for removing those restrictions. Price was unable to provide further details, except that the action was taken in response to a “delisting request.”
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 they were involved in a “network of front companies and middlemen” selling oil and other raw materials in the Middle East and elsewhere, funneling much of the proceeds to support the Houthis.
Biden has tried to end the protracted conflict in Yemen. The State Department on Thursday reiterated its growing frustration with the Houthis, who have been at war with an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
“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 will continue to pressure the Houthis, including through targeted sanctions, to advance. those goals. “