With talks to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran reaching a critical phase, differences have emerged in the U.S. negotiating team over how tough to be with Tehran and when to walk away, according to people familiar with the negotiations. U.S. officials confirmed over the weekend that Richard Nephew, the deputy special envoy for Iran, has left the team. Mr. Nephew, an architect of previous economic sanctions on Iran, had advocated a tougher posture in the current negotiations, and he hasn’t attended the talks in Vienna since early December. Two other members of the team, which is led by State Department veteran Robert Malley, have stepped back from the talks, the people familiar said, because they also wanted a harder negotiating stance.
Iran is ready to consider direct talks with the United States if it feels it can get a good deal with guarantees, its foreign minister said on Monday, adding no decision had yet been made. Indirect talks between Iran and the United States on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal resumed almost two months ago. Western diplomats have indicated they were hoping to have a breakthrough over the next few weeks, but sharp differences remain. Iran has rejected any deadline imposed by Western powers.
The U.S. military intervened on Monday to help the United Arab Emirates thwart a missile attack by rebels in Yemen on an air base where about 2,000 American personnel are stationed, U.S. and Emirati officials said. The attack marked a sharp escalation in tensions as it was the second in a week aimed at the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been at war with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen for years. Though the Houthis frequently target Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, strikes aimed at the Emirates had been rare until recently, as have American interventions like the one on Monday, and the country has been considered a safe haven in a tumultuous region.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The Iranian nuclear talks could hardly be more critical for oil traders. Crude prices have surged 10% this year to around $85 a barrel, with many analysts predicting it’s only a matter of time before they hit triple digits for the first time in eight years. Whether they rush to that level or retreat hinges in large part on Iran’s potential return to global energy markets. The Islamic Republic is locked in negotiations in Vienna with world powers including the U.S. Their diplomats are trying to revive a 2015 accord that limited Tehran’s atomic activities in return for an easing of sanctions.
Iran and world powers are unlikely to reach a deal to resolve the nuclear standoff, a report from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) issued on Monday states. According to the report, the Islamic Republic feels emboldened by its nuclear achievements, and backing from various countries and will not be willing to return to the deal’s nuclear limits without some sweeteners that are beyond what the US is willing to provide.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
When Barry Rosen, one of those held in Tehran’s American embassy in the 1979-81 crisis, saw coverage of the talks in Vienna on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, he felt there was one glaring omission. Rosen, 77, says he saw “nothing in the press, anywhere, about the plight of the hostages,” referring to the dozen or so Westerners being held either in prison or under house arrest in Iran. Rosen decided to come to the Austrian capital and go on hunger strike in their support. “It’s been 40 years since I was freed and now I said to myself I have to do something about this,” Rosen told AFP, sporting a black cap with the slogan “free the hostages.” “I suffered from 1979 to 1981 and I just don’t want more people suffering all the time,” he said in front of the five-star Palais Coburg hotel that is hosting the diplomatic talks.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran intends to set the minimum monthly salary for the next Iranian year (starting March 21) at 56 million rials, which is about $200 at today’s exchange rate. Mohammad-Reza Mirtajodini, a member of the parliament’s budget committee announced the figure on Monday, noting that it is about 20 percent higher than what was proposed by the presidential administration. According to Mirtajodini, 6 million rials will also be cut from payroll taxes. The government intends to raise asset taxes next year. Iran has one of the lowest minimum wages in the world, but salaries were increasing from 20 years ago to about 10 years ago when the minimum wage hit a record high of about $275 in 2010. This coincides with the time when the United Nations Security Council began imposing sanctions to force Tehran to roll back its nuclear program.
Small investors are exiting Tehran’s stock exchange after 18 months of losses, with the hope of making alternative investments and recoup some of their capital. In the Iranian month of Day which ended on January 20, sixty trillion rials was taken out of the stock market, local media reported. Based on Tehran’s free market exchange rate on January 24, this equals $240 million, a small sum compared with the world’s large stock markets, but for Iran the amount in local currency and considering the size of the economy it is an alarming development. The news comes as Iran’s high annual inflation rate hovering above 40 percent showed no sign of declining, and the value of the national currency remained near all-time lows against the US dollar, with 280,000 rials buying just one greenback. In 1978, just before the overthrow of the pro-West monarchy, 70 rials bought one US dollar – a 4000-fold decline in 44 years.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Lebanese Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri said on Monday he was stepping back from politics partly blaming Iran’s intrusive role in Lebanon. The move turns the country's sectarian politics on its head as the country grapples with a financial crisis and may delay the upcoming parliamentary election. Hariri, three times prime minister, also called on his party not to run any candidates in May's vote, indicating several factors were behind his decision, including Iranian influence -- a reference to the heavily armed Shi'ite group Hezbollah. Hariri's Future Movement has long been the biggest representative of the Sunni community, controlling one of the largest blocs in parliament that also included members of other sects - seats which others can now win. In a televised address, Hariri said he had decided to "suspend any role in power, politics and parliament", his voice breaking with emotion as he spoke in front of a portrait of his father.