Iran will begin enriching uranium up to 60% purity after an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility, a negotiator said Tuesday, pushing its program to higher levels than ever before though still remaining short of weapons-grade. The announcement marks a significant escalation after the sabotage that damaged centrifuges, suspected of having been carried out by Israel — and could inspire a further response from Israel amid a long-running shadow war between the nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon and his country has twice preemptively bombed Mideast nations to stop their atomic programs.
‘America is back” has been a mantra of the early Biden Presidency, and back how is the question. So far regarding Iran it seems to mean back to the future of 2015-2016 and another bad nuclear deal. The U.S. on Wednesday will resume talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear agreement, but the bigger news is the explosion over the weekend at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. No one has taken credit, but Israel has been notably public in saying it will do whatever it must to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Among the many obstacles which might block the US and Iran from their mutually professed desire to return to their 2015 nuclear deal, one of the stickiest issues is the complex sanctions infrastructure left behind by the Trump administration. If former president Trump had merely snapped back the Obama administration era sanctions, it would have been much easier for the Biden administration to remove them. Instead, Trump left a booby-trapped minefield that could be difficult for the Biden administration to untangle even if it wishes to.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
U.S. negotiators prepared to resume indirect talks with Iran this week in hopes that an attack on a key Iranian nuclear facility, widely attributed to Israel, would not derail the nascent effort at diplomacy. Biden administration officials were quick to say the United States had nothing to do with the weekend incident, which caused a blackout that damaged centrifuges at the Natanz facility. "The United States was not involved in any manner," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, and the administration has not been "given any indication about a change" in Iranian participation in negotiations over reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement among world powers and Iran that began last week in Vienna.
A shadow war between Israel and Iran hangs ominously over the resumption of critical talks in Vienna on Wednesday, aimed at returning Iran and the US to the 2015 nuclear agreement. The talks come just three days after a sabotage attack at a key Iranian nuclear plant near Natanz, where an explosion cut off electricity to the whole site. The attacked damaged an unknown number of centrifuges - sophisticated machines that make uranium usable for nuclear purposes - and has stopped work at the facility for now.
Iran’s position in nuclear negotiations with the US and the world powers is being heavily influenced by the expectation that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will die soon, former Trump administration national security advisor Lt.-Gen. H.R. McMaster told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. McMaster told the Post, “I don’t think they care about it,” referring to Iran’s mentality regarding the current round of nuclear negotiations, saying that decisive powers in the Islamic Republic are focused on the post-election period and even the era “after Khamenei passes away.”
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
China’s record imports of Iranian crude in recent months has squeezed out supply from rival producers, forcing sellers of oil from countries such as Brazil, Angola and Russia to slash prices and divert shipments to India and Europe. The jump in Iranian volumes took the market by surprise and has capped global oil prices although the Biden administration had been expected to resume talks with Tehran to revive a nuclear deal. Iranian oil started to slip into China from late 2019 despite tough U.S. sanctions, but volumes began to surge only since late last year as oil rebounded above $60 and buyers were emboldened by the prospect of the United States lifting sanctions under President Joe Biden.
The European Union’s decision to add eight Iranian security officials and three entities to its list of sanctions over human rights violations has drawn strongly worded statements of condemnation from the Islamic Republic. On April 14, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the move as "shameful" and criticized the European bloc for “giving in to pressure from hard-line groups” in the United States and Israel. The EU on Monday updated its list of Iranians sanctioned over human rights violations.
Iran on Tuesday summoned the envoy of Portugal, current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency, to protest against the bloc's sanctions on eight Iranian military and police chiefs over a deadly crackdown in 2019, state media reported. The Foreign Ministry voiced Iran's protest to the ambassador, media reports said, over the sanctions which included travel bans and asset freezes and also blacklisted Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards.
With so much handwringing over the Biden Administration’s contemplation of rejoining the problem-ridden Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), other issues of international security are being overshadowed. Among these matters of gravity is Iran’s dedicated development, deployment, and use of its various missile programs—an issue that the U.S. must address competently and comprehensively as soon as possible for a number of reasons.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
The Iranian public's rage at the state-led crackdown on fuel price hike protests in November 2019 has only accumulated over the past 18 months, as authorities refuse to come clean or release any official report into the killings and abuses. A series of inflammatory comments and decisions by Iranian officials over the past week seems to have further intensified the fury. The topic reentered the public sphere after Iran's security chief, Rear Adm.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The United States expects its relationship with Russia to remain a challenge but hopes that they can work together on arms control issues, the Iran nuclear deal and other issues, a White House spokeswoman said on Tuesday. President Joe Biden proposed a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone call on Tuesday, and spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she hoped for an honest and candid conversation between the leaders at such a meeting.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
The recent sabotage at Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facility is just the latest setback for the country’s Revolutionary Guard, though the paramilitary force is rarely publicly criticized due to its power. But with some of its leaders now considering vying for the presidency, the Guard’s influence and failures could become fair game. In just over the last year, the Guard shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner, killing 176 people. Its forces failed to stop both an earlier attack at Iran’s Natanz facility and the assassination of a top scientist who started a military nuclear program decades earlier.
The alleged Israeli attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility targeted an electrical substation located 40 to 50 meters underground and damaged “thousands of centrifuges,” Iranian officials revealed in recent days. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told Iranian media on Monday that the attack hit an electrical substation located deep underground and managed to damage both the power distribution system and the cable leading to the centrifuges in order to cut power to them. The Iranian official stressed that such an operation takes years, saying “the design of the enemy was very beautiful.”
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Hassan Khomeini, one of the grandchildren of the Iranian Revolution's founder Ruhollah Khomeini, announced on Tuesday that he would not be running for president, after months of speculation that he would attempt to run for the position as a reformist candidate, according to Iranian media. In an interview with the reformist Jamaran news, Yasser Khomeini, Hassan's brother, said that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told Hassan in a meeting that he "did not consider it appropriate for Seyyed Hassan Khomeini to run in the presidential election in the current situation and asked him not to enter the arena."
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
An Israeli-owned ship was “slightly damaged” by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea, Al Arabiya TV reported, days after Iran accused Israel of assaulting one of its nuclear facilities. The report did not identify the Bahamas-flagged car carrier or its owner, but said this was this second time one of the company’s vessels had been targeted. The ship continued on its way after it was hit, Al Arabiya said. A vessel owned by Tel Aviv-based Ray Shipping Ltd., the Helios Ray, was hit by an explosion in March that Israel blamed on Iran.
An apparent incident of sabotage provoked an angry response. Iranian officials allege Israel was behind a Sunday attack at the key Natanz nuclear facility, which, according to reports, led to a fire and blackout that damaged centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the breach was an act of “terrorist stupidity” that would only “strengthen” Iran’s hand in ongoing indirect talks in Vienna with the United States and its European partners on restoring both Iranian and American commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal.
CHINA & IRAN
At first glance, a sweeping 25-year strategic partnership signed by China and Iran late last month makes a lot of sense. Iran is an oil-rich nation with regional ambitions but a crumbling economy. China is the world’s biggest oil importer with grand plans to construct a “new silk road” across the Eurasian landmass. Yet the agreement is perilous for both sides — and could be a new source of instability just as America is poised to end its “forever wars” in the region. The Iranian regime has faced widespread domestic opposition to the deal since a draft was first made public last year.
On Sunday, Iranian officials confirmed an "incident"—a blackout—at their Natanz underground facility, where the Islamic Republic enriches uranium. Iran's Atomic Energy Organization called the event a "terrorist action." The blackout occurredSaturday, at about the time Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced "133 national nuclear achievements and projects" at Natanz, including the installation of advanced centrifuges. He alsorevealed the installation of centrifuges at the Arak nuclear complex.