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The United States is lifting some Iran sanctions in the midst of halted nuclear talks



The Biden administration lifted sanctions on three former Iranian officials and several energy companies amid halted nuclear talks and signaled Washington’s willingness to further ease economic pressure on Iran if the country changes course.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday lifted sanctions against former senior national Iranian Oil Co. officials and several companies involved in the shipping and trade of petrochemical products. The administration described the movements as routine administrative acts and said officials were removed from U.S. blacklists because they no longer held positions in the sanctioned units.

But officials familiar with talks in Vienna on the future of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal said the Biden administration has looked at how it could boost the negotiations. Oil prices fell nearly 2% after the news, but quickly recovered their losses and continued to trade above $ 70 per barrel. Barrel.

“These actions demonstrate our commitment to lift sanctions in the event of a change in the status or conduct of sanctioned persons,”

; said Foreign Minister Antony Blinken in a statement accompanying the announcement of the action.

The actions came as US, Iranian, European and Chinese negotiators in Vienna prepare to launch a sixth round of negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the United States and five other world powers. Discussions are expected to start again this weekend in Vienna, according to people involved in the negotiations.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters later Thursday that the actions “have absolutely no connection” to ongoing negotiations on the nuclear deal. A finance minister also said, “This is not a broader easing of sanctions against the oil sector in Iran.”

The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. and European officials have said there are still significant differences between Washington and Tehran on how to restore the nuclear deal, including the extent of any possible sanctions relief.

There have been negotiations in Vienna.


Photo:

Lisa Leutner / Associated Press

Completed in 2015, the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan lifted international economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for temporary restrictions on the country’s nuclear program.

In 2018, President Trump pulled the United States out of the deal, calling it unilateral and arguing that it provided Iran with funding that Tehran was targeting its military, weapons programs and militant groups elsewhere in the region.

In an attempt to push Iran back to the negotiating table for a stricter deal, the Trump administration reintroduced extensive sanctions on Tehran, hitting all major export sectors and helping put the country in a deep economic depression.

In addition to the oil and banking sector, the sanctions also included shipping, construction, the automotive and metal industries and targeted at hundreds of Iranian officials, financial trusts and companies by name. They effectively froze most international business relations with Iran and threatened US and foreign companies if they traded with Iran, including the purchase of Iranian oil, natural gas or petrochemical products.

Iran has remained a party to the agreement, although it steadily violates many of its borders, including uranium enrichment. The country has consistently demanded that the US lift almost all sanctions in advance before bringing back its nuclear activities in accordance with the 2015 agreement. The other parties to the agreement, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, remain in it.

The talks in Vienna are now very likely to swing past Iran’s presidential election on June 18, which some Western officials saw as a target date for ending the talks because of their potential impact on Iran’s position.

US officials have said they will be ready to lift most sanctions against Iran’s oil, petrochemical and shipping sectors as part of a deal to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. So far, the United States has insisted it will maintain other anti-terrorism sanctions. , including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary group that retains significant influence over the Iranian government, economy and foreign policy. In fact, on Thursday, even as it lifted some sanctions, the United States also levied new ones on a group of men and companies that U.S. officials said they were helping fund the Islamic Revolutionary Corps and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Critics of the administration’s Iran policy say Thursday’s lifting of sanctions would undermine Washington’s leverage over Iran in the negotiations.

While Iran says it is not trying to build nuclear weapons, a look at its main facilities suggests that it could develop the technology to manufacture them. WSJ destroys Tehran’s capabilities as it reaches new milestones in uranium enrichment and restricts access to inspectors. Photo illustration: George Downs

“The lifting of sanctions during the negotiations shows weakness in Iran and calls on Tehran to continue its sinister activities, including nuclear blackmail and sending conventional weapons to US opponents,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former top security adviser to President Trump now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies , a think tank that spoke in favor of tougher sanctions.

Several Republican lawmakers said the action confirmed their fears about the Biden administration’s Iran policy.

“The Biden administrator is in a hurry to lift sanctions on Iran, including and especially their oil industry and shipping, before even pretending a deal,” Senator Ted Cruz, (R., TX), said in a tweet from his official. account. “What happened to Biden’s promise not to give Ayatollah unilateral concessions?”

Thursday’s movements represent part of the broad spectrum of Iranian sanctions and are not expected to provide any significant economic or economic relief to the country. Combined with the significant differences left between the parties negotiating in Vienna on how to restore the 2015 agreement, it is not expected that the sanctions themselves will remove the existing dead end.

Yet deletions from Iran’s sanctions rolls are relatively rare, according to data available on the Treasury Department’s website with less than a handful in recent years. The last removal – in January last year – involved a large Chinese shipping company that promised to no longer handle Iranian cargo.

Thursday’s action therefore signals to Iran that the Biden administration has not only a will to act, but also the administrative and legal ability to do so, analysts said.

NIOC officials were sanctioned in 2013 for allegedly evading sanctions against the Iranian government when the Obama administration tried to push Tehran into a nuclear deal. U.S. officials at the time said the action was aimed at disrupting Iran’s nuclear and weapons programs. The companies, which were removed Thursday, were blacklisted in 2020 for allegedly aiding Iran’s sanctioned petrochemical trade, which the Trump administration said the Iranian government used to fund groups designated by the United States as terrorists.

Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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