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 gesture ahead of a potentially decisive round of nuclear talks in Vienna.
The government warned against reading too much into the movement. State Department spokesman Ned Price said there was "absolutely no connection" between the sanctions and the discussions between various world powers and Tehran.
Those talks are designed to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 agreement that sought to curtail Iran's nuclear program in exchange for an end to many of the international sanctions that are straining the country's economy. have put.
In the same statements announcing that the United States had lifted some sanctions, the state and finance ministries also said they were imposing new sanctions on a dozen Iranian individuals, entities and ships for providing financial support to the Houthi rebels in the United States. Yemen, who are supported by Iran.
A sixth round of nuclear talks begins this weekend in Vienna. Robert Einhorn, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, said the timing of the US announcements suggested a link to the nuclear issue, and could be a signal of US flexibility.
"What they're saying to Iran," he said, "is, look, we're willing to be reasonable here: when sanctions are no longer warranted, we're willing to lift them; but if they're warranted, we're willing to lift them. to lay."
That message could also provide ammunition for Republicans in Congress who claim that President Biden is in his… determination to renew the nuclear deal will remove the leverage on Iran that sanctions provide.
During a daily briefing with reporters, Mr Price insisted that there is "no connection, there is no connection" with the nuclear talks. But he added that the move was a reminder that US sanctions could always be undone.
“Every time we impose sanctions, we hope that through a verified behavior change, a verified status change, we will one day be able to lift those sanctions,” said Mr. Price. “Because that means our policy objectives have somehow been met.”
The United States has been negotiating with Iran since April, albeit only indirectly, through intermediaries in Vienna, over Tehran's refusal to speak directly with US officials.
Biden administration officials have said for weeks that they are willing to lift sanctions against Iran as part of a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 agreement, and that the main obstacle to an agreement is whether Iran's leadership is willing to respond by scaling back its nuclear activities.
The 2015 agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and several other world powers traded Western sanctions for relief in exchange for Iran's agreement to accept restrictions on — and international oversight on — its nuclear program to ensure it didn't try. build a weapon. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.
President Donald J. Trump The United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and slammed 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 amounts much higher than allowed under the agreement.
Some European officials were openly optimistic about the prospects for a near-term breakthrough. But during a Wednesday performance at the German Marshall Fund, Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, was cautious.
"I think a lot of progress has been made, but from our own experience, until the last detail is captured — and I mean nailed down — we won't know if we have an agreement," Ms Sherman said, according to one Reuters report.
An interim, unofficial deadline is June 18, the date of Iran's presidential election. Mr Einhorn called the prospects for an agreement before that vote "very, very small".
The election results are unlikely to have much of an effect on the nuclear talks; however, the leadership of Iran narrowed the field of candidates to everyone except the victory of a hard ally of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And US officials say Mr Khamenei will ultimately decide whether to return to abiding by the original agreement in any case.
But Mr Einhorn said Mr Khamenei may hope to calibrate the timing for the post-election period and before a new president is sworn in so that Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president, would be seen as making politically painful nuclear concessions to 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.
One of the issues that has bogged down talks, Mr Einhorn said, is what Iran should do with the advanced centrifuges — instruments that can enrich uranium to bomb-grade purity — it has installed in violation of the nuclear deal. Republicans in Congress have said the centrifuges should be destroyed, but the Iranians may hope to keep them without operating them.
The sanctions, which were lifted on Thursday, were imposed on former Iranian officials and companies the foreign ministry said were "previously involved in the purchase, acquisition, sale, transportation or marketing of Iranian petrochemical products."
The ministries of state and finance have not explained the exact justification for lifting those restrictions. Mr Price was unable to provide more details, other than 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 intermediaries" that sell oil and other commodities in the Middle East and elsewhere, funneling much of the proceeds to support the Houthis. .
Mr Biden has attempted to: end the protracted conflict in Yemen. The foreign ministry on Thursday reiterated its growing frustration with the Houthis, who have been at war with a Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition.
"It is time for the Houthis to accept a ceasefire and for all parties to resume political talks," the State Department statement said, adding that the United States will continue to put pressure on the Houthis, including through targeted sanctions, to make progress. those goals.”