A power failure that appeared to have been caused by a deliberately planned explosion struck Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site on Sunday, in what Iranian officials called an act of sabotage that they suggested had been carried out by Israel. The blackout injected new uncertainty into diplomatic efforts that began last week to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal repudiated by the Trump administration. Iran did not say precisely what had caused the blackout at the heavily fortified site, which has been a target of previous sabotage, and Israel publicly declined to confirm or deny any responsibility.
Nascent talks aimed at bringing the United States back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran broke Friday without any immediate signs of progress on the thorny issues dividing Washington and Tehran, but with delegates talking of a constructive atmosphere and resolving to continue the discussions. Two working groups that have been meeting in Vienna since Tuesday to brainstorm ways to secure the lifting of American sanctions and Iran’s return to compliance with the deal reported their initial progress to a joint commission of diplomats from the world powers that remain in the deal — France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia.
The Biden administration warned Friday that it will not lift every single economic sanction that former President Donald Trump imposed on Iran, despite pressure from Iran to do so as the two countries try to resurrect a nearly dead nuclear agreement. A senior State Department official clarified the United States position on sanctions at the end of a week in which Tehran and Washington held indirect talks in Vienna about returning to the 2015 agreement. The U.S. official‘s comments followed a tweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said all Trump-era sanctions needed to be lifted before Iran would return to compliance with the deal.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Officials from Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain will continue talks on the return of the United States to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran next week, after “constructive exchanges” this week, the European Union said on Friday. The talks, taking place in Vienna in the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are chaired by an official appointed by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell.
An initial round of talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program was a good first step but the Islamic Republic still hasn’t shown it’s willing to do what’s necessary to come back into compliance with a 2015 agreement, a senior U.S. official told reporters Friday. The official, offering the most detailed U.S. readout of the indirect talks, said the two sides are headed toward an impasse if Iran sticks to its demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions imposed since 2017, when former President Donald Trump took office and started ratcheting up pressure.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani oversaw on live television Saturday the launch of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, a key component for nuclear weapons, while reiterating his country’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Rouhani’s conflicting messages came as the country observed National Nuclear Technology Day, during which he was seen on state television ordering the injection of uranium gas into nearly 200 centrifuges and tests on other devices at the underground Natanz nuclear plant.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
U.S. and Iranian officials clashed on Friday over what sanctions the United States should lift to resume compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, with Washington predicting an impasse if Tehran sticks to a demand that all sanctions since 2017 be removed. The two nations laid out tough stances as indirect talks in Vienna on how to bring both back into full compliance with the agreement wound up for the week, with some delegates citing progress.
The International Monetary Fund expects inflation in Iran to rise further this year and called for reforms as the economy recovers from the coronavirus crisis. Iran was badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which intensified economic pressures coming from sanctions that curb oil sales vital for the OPEC producer. Inflation is expected to rise to 39% this year from 36.5% last year, the IMF has estimated. “We expect the Iranian economy will turn into positive growth this year and next year,” Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, told Reuters.
Iranian crude could return to global markets sooner rather than later as this week’s start of negotiations between Tehran and the five world powers that, together with the U.S. signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that put an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in 2015. The Oil and Gas Journal reports, citing oil analytics firm Kpler, that the start of negotiations is a positive sign for things to come: soon, Tehran and Washington could too sit at the negotiating table. If this happens and they reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear plans, some 2 million bpd of Iranian crude could be added to OPEC’s total.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Like other totalitarian regimes, the Islamist theocracy ruling Iran pays lip service to democracy with elections and other trappings of popular sovereignty, but only for the veneer of legitimacy. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rules absolutely. Potemkin elections — such as the presidential election coming up in June — serve to distract from a repressive state that with each passing year is more resented but also more intent to kill to survive, both inside Iran and throughout the region.
Emad Shargi, one of four Americans being held prisoner in Iran as discussions are underway that may return the U.S. to a nuclear agreement with Iran, was suddenly arrested in November, just weeks after Joe Biden won the presidential election. In an exclusive interview with CBS News, the family of the 56-year-old businessman revealed new details about his arrest. Shargi's daughters — Hannah and Ariana — were emphatic in their conviction that their father was taken in order to be used as leverage by Iran over the Biden administration.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, making the first visit to Israel by a senior Biden administration official, said Sunday that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was "enduring and ironclad," amid growing Israeli concern over American efforts to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. The start of the two-day visit, in which Austin is scheduled to meet with several leading figures of Israel’s defense establishment to discuss the sale of U.S. arms to Israel, coincided with reports of an overnight power outage at Natanz, a highly sensitive Iranian nuclear site, just hours after it began operating new advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium more quickly.
Even before the “indirect” US-Iran talks in Vienna had finished up, Team Biden caved, with the State Department saying it’s ready to lift sanctions on the rogue regime to rejoin the nuclear deal — giving away all leverage without getting a thing in return. Spokesman Ned Price said Washington is “prepared” to lift all sanctions “that are inconsistent with” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He wouldn’t offer details: “I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be.”
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country on Saturday to curb the spread of a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported. The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi said. Businesses, schools, theatres and sports facilities have been forced to shut and gatherings are banned during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Wednesday. Iran’s coronavirus cases have surpassed 2 million with a new daily average of over 20,000 infections over the past week, according to the health ministry.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israel’s defence minister pledged on Sunday to cooperate with the United States on Iran, voicing hope that Israeli security would be safeguarded under any renewed Iranian nuclear deal that Washington reaches. “Israel views the United States as a full partner across all operational theatres, not the least Iran,” Benny Gantz said after hosting visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
What started out in total silence, deep under the radar or the sea, is fast becoming a violent, dangerous clash attracting wide media coverage. Israel and Iran are lifting the veil over their military conflict and no one seems overly troubled. On the contrary. A day after an April 6 Red Sea attack attributed to Israel’s naval commando on the Iranian military vessel the MV Saviz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this amazing declaration at a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day: “To our good friends as well, I say, 'The deal with Iran that poses and threatens our destruction will not obligate us.'”
Israeli military expert Amir Bohbot revealed in a report published by Israel's Walla News website April 3 said that in 2006, Iran opened a route to smuggle missiles and ammunition to Hamas in the Gaza Strip through Yemen and Sudan, thousands of kilometers from the Israeli coast. The smuggling operations were led by Hamas’ military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh until he was assassinated by Israel in Dubai in January 2010, Bohbot said, without specifying who succeeded Mabhouh.
IRAQ & IRAN
When the call came to fight the Islamic State, the lines of volunteers here stretched for blocks. Friends pooled money to pay for transportation to local militia recruitment offices. Young men were already scrambling onto buses bound for the front lines. As the Iraqi army melted away, it fell often to the mostly Shiite Muslim militias to turn back and rout the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. For many in the city of Nasiriyah, it felt like a battle for Iraq’s soul. “Back then, it was just about one thing,” said former militiaman Thamer al-Safi, recalling the battles of 2014 in which two of his brothers died. “This was about our future. This was about Iraq.”
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
The future of diplomatic and financial relations between Iran and South Korea is at stake as Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun visits Tehran for three days of talks. South Korea has for years blocked at least $7bn of Iranian money in its banks as it fears falling afoul of harsh economic sanctions the United States started unilaterally imposing on Iran in 2018. The money, mostly yields from exported Iranian oil, was central to talks between Chung and First Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri on Sunday. In a joint press conference in Tehran, Jahangiri called for the release of the funds.
Israel appeared to confirm claims that it was behind a cyber-attack on Iran’s main nuclear facility on Sunday, which Tehran’s nuclear energy chief described as an act of terrorism that warranted a response against its perpetrators. The apparent attack took place hours after officials at the Natanz reactor restarted spinning advanced centrifuges that could speed up the production of enriched uranium, in what had been billed as a pivotal moment in the country’s nuclear programme.