US REMOVES some Iran sanctions imposed by Trump back to Obama-era deal

Biden REMOVES some Iran sanctions imposed by Trump – including unfreezing $29B in bank accounts overseas – in bid to return to Obama-era deal that three negotiators have resigned over

  • The Biden administration on Friday restored a sanctions waiver to Iran 
  • Indirect talks between the United States and Iran on returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement has entered the final stretch
  • One official said it was not a signal Washington was reaching an understanding to return to the deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
  • Waivers allowed foreign companies to carry out non-proliferation work to make it harder for Iranian nuclear sites to be used for weapons development
  • Waivers were rescinded by the United States in 2019 and 2020 under former President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear agreement
  • The United States and Iran have held eight rounds of indirect talks in Vienna since April aimed at reinstating the pact that lifted sanctions against Tehran 
  • There has been no formal announcement on when the ninth round would start, but expectations intensified that it could be next week
  • After Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions, Iran gradually started violating the pact’s nuclear curbs
  •  Western diplomats now worry that its nuclear advancement leaves a very narrow window of time to return to the deal
  • The US State Department is waiving sanctions on Iran‘s civilian nuclear program in the hope that Tehran will return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, a senior official said Friday.

    As U.S. negotiators head back to Vienna for what could be a make-or-break session, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed several sanctions waivers related to Iran’s civilian nuclear activities. The move reverses the Trump administration’s decision to rescind them. 

    The resumption of the waiver, ended by Trump in 2020, ‘would be essential to ensuring Iran’s swift compliance’ if a new deal on controlling Tehran’s nuclear program can be reached in talks in Vienna, the State Department official said.

    The waivers are intended to entice Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 deal that it has been violating since former President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and re-imposed U.S. sanctions.

    The removal of sanctions would see the release of Iran’s frozen funds held abroad, estimated at some $29 billion about a one third of what’s held abroad by the country. 

    Iran would once against be allowed to trade with the rest of the world use global banking systems such as SWIFT to wire money.

    Sanctions against exports of Iranian oil would also be removed. Foreign firms would once again be allowed to invest in Iran’s commodities of oil and gas, automobiles, hotels and other sectors.  

    So far, three negotiators on the U.S. team have resigned. In January Richard Nephew stepped down as deputy special envoy for Iran and left the U.S. team negotiating Iran’s return to the 2015 nuclear deal because he believed the there was no future for the agreement.

    Two other officials have also left the negotiating team in recent months, including  Ariane Tabatabai, a senior adviser in the State Department arms control bureau. 

    The Biden administration on Friday restored a sanctions waiver to Iran

    The Biden administration on Friday restored a sanctions waiver to Iran

    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had previously said that negotiations, talks, and understanding with the enemy would not mean surrender, referring to the still ongoing nuclear negotiations

    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had previously said that negotiations, talks, and understanding with the enemy would not mean surrender, referring to the still ongoing nuclear negotiations

    Richard Nephew left his role as deputy special envoy for Iran in January after he disagree with Washington's policy of seeking a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran

    Richard Nephew left his role as deputy special envoy for Iran in January after he disagree with Washington’s policy of seeking a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran

    SANCTIONS RELIEF

    • Release of Iran’s frozen funds abroad, estimated at $29 billion, representing approximately one third of Iran’s foreign held reserves.
    • The removal of sanctions against exports of Iranian oil.
    • Allow foreign firms to invest in Iran’s oil and gas, automobiles, hotels and other sectors. 
    • Allow Iran to trade with the rest of the world and use the global banking system such as SWIFT. 
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    Iran says it is not respecting the terms of the deal because the U.S. pulled out of it first. Iran has demanded the restoration of all sanctions relief it was promised under the deal to return to compliance.  

    Earlier this week it was revealed how Iran’s nuclear program was on the verge of producing enough fuel for a nuclear bomb in just a matter of weeks and could have a device built in less than a year, according to an estimate by US officials.

    Iran’s ‘breakout time’ – the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon – is believed to have advanced greatly after Donald Trump withdrew the US from a deal with the country in 2018, officials claim.

    The breakout time is different from the time it would take Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Western officials believe Iran hasn’t quite figured out how to build the core of a bomb and attach a warhead to a missile.

    But the reduced breakout time is significantly lower than the 12-month period that formed the basis of the nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama in 2015.

    The length of Iran’s breakout time depends on the steps Iran agrees to take to dismantle, ship abroad, destroy or seal its stockpile of enriched uranium, along with its machines for producing nuclear fuel and its centrifuge manufacturing capacity. 

    US officials believe a breakout period shorter than six months wouldn’t give the US enough time to respond if Iran decided to ramp up its nuclear program. 

    The State Department have so far declined to comment ​on the breakout assessments.

    The Trump administration ended the so-called ‘civ-nuke’ waivers in May 2020 as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran that began when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, complaining that it was the worst diplomatic agreement ever negotiated and gave Iran a pathway to developing a nuclear bomb.

    As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden made a U.S. return to the nuclear deal a priority, and his administration has pursued that goal but there has been little progress toward that end since he took office a year ago. Administration officials said the waivers were being restored to help push the Vienna negotiations forward. 

    The waiver allows other countries and companies to participate in Iran’s civilian nuclear program without triggering US sanctions on them, in the name of promoting safety and on-proliferation. 

    The civilian program includes the country’s increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium.

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed several sanctions waivers related to Iran's civilian nuclear activities. The move reverses the Trump administration's decision to rescind them

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed several sanctions waivers related to Iran’s civilian nuclear activities. The move reverses the Trump administration’s decision to rescind them

    A file handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies from January 2020, shows an overview of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran

    A file handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies from January 2020, shows an overview of Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran

    In December, state TV broadcast images of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps firing missiles during military exercises in three provinces, including near its only nuclear power plant

    In December, state TV broadcast images of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps firing missiles during military exercises in three provinces, including near its only nuclear power plant

    ‘Absent this sanctions waiver, detailed technical discussions with third parties regarding disposition of stockpiles and other activities of nonproliferation value cannot take place,’ the official said, insisting on anonymity.

    The step came as talks to restore the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which former president Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018, were at an advanced stage.

    The Vienna talks, which include Iran, the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, are at a key stage where the parties have to make ‘critical political decisions,’ a senior US official said last week.








    Former President of Iran Hassan Rouhani (R) and the head of Iran nuclear technology organization Ali Akbar Salehi inspect nuclear technology in Tehran in April 2019 (file photo)

    Former President of Iran Hassan Rouhani (R) and the head of Iran nuclear technology organization Ali Akbar Salehi inspect nuclear technology in Tehran in April 2019 (file photo)

    ‘The technical discussions facilitated by the waiver are necessary in the final weeks of JCPOA talks,’ the State Department official said.

    But even if a final deal is not reached, the official said, the waiver is important to holding discussions on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, of interest to the entire world 

    The waivers also permit foreign countries and companies to work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant and the Tehran Research Reactor. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had revoked the waivers in May, 2020, accusing Iran of ‘nuclear extortion’ for continuing and expanding work at the sites. 

    The waivers were rescinded by the United States in 2019 and 2020 under former President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear agreement

    The waivers were rescinded by the United States in 2019 and 2020 under former President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear agreement

    In January, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi suggested that a deal could be reached during a TV interview after he returned from meeting Vladimir Putin in Moscow

    In January, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi suggested that a deal could be reached during a TV interview after he returned from meeting Vladimir Putin in Moscow








    The official insisted that the move was not ‘part of a quid pro quo,’ as the partners in the JCPOA talks await Iran’s response on key issues.

    But the senior administration official who briefed reporters on the talks last week said that time was running out, and urged Tehran to make important decisions.

    ‘I think we’re at the point where some of the most critical political decisions have to be made by all sides,’ the official said.

    The official proposed direct talks between Washington and Tehran to focus on the most difficult issues separating the sides.

    ‘If our goal is to reach an understanding quickly… the optimal way to do that, in any negotiation, is for the parties that have the most at stake to meet directly,’ the official said. 

    ‘The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran´s return to performance of its JCPOA commitments,’ the State Department said in a notice to Congress that announced the move.

    Iranians are seen celebrating following a landmark nuclear deal in Iran in July 2015

    Iranians are seen celebrating following a landmark nuclear deal in Iran in July 2015

    Three years later, Iranians were seen burning US flags in May 2018 following Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal

    Three years later, Iranians were seen burning US flags in May 2018 following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal

    ‘It is also designed to serve U.S. nonproliferation and nuclear safety interests and constrain Iran´s nuclear activities,’ the department said. ‘It is being issued as a matter of policy discretion with these objectives in mind, and not pursuant to a commitment or as part of a quid pro quo. We are focused on working with partners and allies to counter the full range of threats that Iran poses.’

    Critics of the nuclear deal who lobbied Trump to withdraw from it protested, arguing that even if the Biden administration wanted to return to the 2015 deal it should at least demand some concessions from Iran before up front granting it sanctions relief.

    ‘From a negotiating perspective, they look desperate: we’ll waive sanctions before we even have a deal, just say yes to anything!’ said Rich Goldberg, a vocal deal opponent who is a senior adviser to the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    One senior State Department official familiar with the waivers maintained that the move is not a ‘concession’ to Iran and was being taken ‘in our vital national interest as well as the interest of the region and the world.’ The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.