The United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries on Tuesday to establish two working groups to try to get both countries back into compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In a meeting of the current members of the deal in Vienna, all parties agreed to establish one working group to focus on how to get the United States back to the deal by lifting harsh economic sanctions imposed or reimposed after President Donald J. Trump pulled out of the accord in May 2018. The other working group will focus on how to get Iran back into compliance with the accord’s limitations on nuclear enrichment and stockpiles of enriched uranium.
U.S. prosecutors said on Tuesday they charged the president of a New York cosmetics company for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to violate U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. Michael Rose, president of Forsythe Cosmetics Group LLC, is accused of skirting U.S. sanctions between 2015 and 2018 by arranging for the export from the United States to Iran of more than $350,000 worth of cosmetics, prosecutors said in an indictment.
An Iranian-flagged vessel was hit with mines in the Red Sea, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported, on the same day that Tehran and world powers including the U.S. met in Austria for nuclear talks. The New York Times reported that Israel attacked the ship. The Saviz has been based in the area for several years, according to Tasnim, and often deploys Iranian commando boats that are used to escort commercial vessels. It was in the waterway on Tuesday when the limpet mines exploded, the report said, without saying where it got the information.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The first talks on Iran’s nuclear program involving the U.S. since Joe Biden became president will be complicated by the fact Tehran’s diplomats refuse to speak directly to the Americans. The meeting in Vienna starting today of key parties to the 2015 nuclear deal — including Russia, China, France, Germany, the U.K., and the European Union — feels a little like kids in a schoolyard as a result. The other countries will essentially have to whisper in the ear of Iran and the U.S. and pass notes between them.
The Obama administration, led by then secretary of state John Kerry, negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. July 14, 2015, was “Finalization Day,” when the Iran deal was concluded and announced. October 19, 2015, was “Adoption Day,” when all parties to the deal considered themselves to have adopted its terms. At exactly the same time, in July 2015, an American citizen named Siamak Namazi was blocked from leaving Tehran after a visit. On October 13, 2015, he was formally arrested and on October 18, he was sentenced to ten years in prison — one day before “Adoption Day.”
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Millions of crude oil barrels are on their way to Syria from Iran, violating U.S. sanctions. According to a civilian naval intelligence firm, there are four vessels with more than 3 million barrels combined on their way to the Baniyas oil refinery, near the Mediterranean coast. A satellite photo captured two days ago over the southern section of the Red Sea shows four vessels: Arman 114, Sam 121, Daran and Romina. The Arman 114 is formerly known as the Adrian Darya 1, a vessel in the center of the U.S.-Iran standoff in the summer of 2019.
Oil investors now have to contend with another wildcard: Iran soon returning to the oil markets. After a three-year layoff, Iran could be poised to officially rejoin the ranks of oil exporters as early as 2021. But does it really portend oil price doom? Not necessarily. Oil prices reacted positively after OPEC and its non-OPEC partners last week reached a favorable agreement to start gradually curbing production cuts beginning in May. Starting next month, OPEC+ will allow an additional 350,000 barrels per day to join the markets, with another 350,000 coming in June and June and 450,000 barrels per day slated for July.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
A German-Iranian woman was returned to solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin jail on the eve of talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Nahid Taghavi, 66, was taken from a mainstream women’s wing to a section of the jail controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in which she was previously held for five months. Her family believe the move was intended to put pressure on Germany, one of the signatories to the nuclear accord, as Iran pushes for the lifting of US sanctions at talks in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The Biden administration is not anticipating any changes on Iran policy amid negotiations over reinstating the 2015 nuclear deal severed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. The United States and Iran are holding indirect talks this week in Vienna over a return to the accord. “We’ve been clear that we are not taking, not anticipating any steps at this moment. We’ll allow the negotiations to continue,” Psaki said.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will be the Biden administration's first top cabinet member to visit Israel. He is expected to arrive next week, Walla reported on Tuesday night. Austin will arrive in Israel amid an increase in maritime incidents between Israel and Iran.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
A dispute within Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has spilled into public view with a deputy commander lashing out at an aide to the IRGC's commander in chief who has ambitions to win the presidency in a June election. Divisions within the IRGC over the vote became public when Yadollah Javani, an IRGC deputy commander for political affairs, gave an interview with the Fars news agency on April 3. Javani accused Saeed Mohammad, the former commander of IRGC's construction conglomerate Khatam al-Anbya, of "violations" and said he had been dismissed due to his pursuit of the presidency.
A loosely controlled two-week public holiday in Iran has driven new coronavirus infections to a record high in the Middle East’s worst-hit country. New cases surged to 17,430 on Tuesday, surpassing the previous record of 14,051 reported in late November last year, the Health Ministry said, adding that a further 174 deaths were reported overnight. Authorities have declared Tehran and several other major cities “red zones”, as infections soared after millions of people defied government advice by traveling during the Persian new year holiday, which started on March 20.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
An Iranian military vessel stationed in the Red Sea was damaged by an apparent Israeli mine attack on Tuesday in an escalation of the shadowy naval skirmishing that has characterized the two adversaries’ exchanges in recent years. The damage to the vessel, which Iranian media identified as the Saviz, came as progress was reported on the first day of talks to revive American participation in the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers. Israel, which regards Iran as its most potent foe, strongly opposes a restoration of that agreement, which was abandoned by the Trump administration three years ago.
CHINA & IRAN
China and Iran recently announced a twenty-five-year “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” which seeks to increase military, defense, and security cooperation between Iran and China, to the consternation of both countries’ adversaries. The pact does not signal the materialization of an Iran-China alliance but instead points to a broader Chinese strategy to grow its influence in the Middle East. Ironically, this comes at a time when a bipartisan consensus has emerged in Washington that the United States should reduce its engagement in the Middle East to address the challenge posed by a rising China.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
The battle for an ancient desert city in war-torn Yemen has become a key to understanding wider tensions now inflaming the Middle East and the challenges facing any efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration to shift U.S. troops out of the region. Fighting has been raging in the mountains outside Marib as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who hold Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, attempt to seize the city, which is crucial to the country’s energy supplies. Saudi Arabia, which has led a military coalition since 2015 backing Sanaa’s exiled government, has launched airstrike after airstrike to blunt the Houthi advance toward Marib.
IRAQ & IRAN
Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, the commander of Iran's IRGC Quds Force went to Iraq on the eve of Iraq holding discussions with the US this week. This is clearly a symbolic visit designed to show that Iran considers Iraq part of its “near abroad” and that the US should be wary to be playing too close to Iran’s backyard. Qaani ended a two-day trip to neighboring Iraq, the Arabic-language Al-Alam news network reported today. Qaani has struggled to take up the banner of Qasem Soleimani since he was appointed in January 2020. Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Iran has indicted 10 officials over the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020 that killed all 176 people on board, a military prosecutor said on Tuesday. In a report published last month, Iran’s civil aviation body blamed the crash on a misaligned radar and an error by an air defence operator. Ukraine and Canada, home to many of those who died, criticised the report as insufficient.
Facebook said Tuesday it has removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to an Iranian exile group and a troll farm in Albania. The accounts posted content critical of Iran’s government and supportive of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a dissident group known as MEK. In many cases, the Facebook and Instagram accounts used fake profile names and photos. Facebook determined the accounts were being run from a single location in Albania by a group of individuals working on behalf of MEK.