Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were most likely behind a deadly rocket barrage on a U.S.-led coalition base in northern Iraq earlier this week, but it's not clear whether Iran had any role in directing the attack, experts and a U.S. official said on Friday. The attack on Irbil on Monday in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq bore the telltale signs of the Shiite militias supported by Iran, with tactics, weapons and online posts that resembled previous assaults on U.S. targets in Iraq, a current U.S. official, a former senior U.S. diplomat, and a regional expert told NBC News.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the United States has started talks with Iran over the return of at least five American hostages whom Tehran is holding. In an interview on CBS News' "Face the Nation" show, Sullivan said that it was a "significant priority" of President Joe Biden's administration to get the Americans "safely back home" and that it was a “complete and utter outrage” that they were being held. "We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue," Sullivan said.
Iran will begin to offer United Nations inspectors “less access” to its nuclear program as part of its pressure campaign on the West, though investigators will still be able to monitor Tehran’s work, the U.N. atomic watchdog’s chief said Sunday. Rafael Grossi’s comments came after an emergency trip to Iran in which he said the International Atomic Energy Agency reached a “technical understanding” with Tehran to continue to allow monitoring of its nuclear program for up to three months.
UANI IN THE NEWS
… Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, told JNS that “Iran isn’t responding to these gestures, including the removal of the terrorism sanctions on the Houthis, with goodwill. Instead, Tehran, its proxies and its partners are taking more hostages, rocketing and droning.” Earlier this week, rocket attacks on the Erbil Air Base in Iraq injured five Americans and killed one foreign contractor. While it is still unclear who launched the recent attack, signs point to Iran or one of its militias in Iraq.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran appears to have partly lifted its threat to sharply limit international inspections of its nuclear facilities starting on Tuesday, giving Western nations three months to see if the beginnings of a new diplomatic initiative with the United States and Europe will restore the 2015 nuclear deal. After a weekend trip to Tehran, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Sunday that his inspectors would have “less access” as of Tuesday, but that they could still monitor the key production sites where Iran has declared that it is making nuclear material.
Iran and the U.S. sparred over how to revive a nuclear deal, reflecting the challenge ahead for the Biden administration even as nuclear inspectors persuaded Iran to temporarily allow some wider monitoring. Tehran over the weekend renewed its demand that the new U.S. administration rejoin the accord and lift crippling Trump-era sanctions on the Iranian economy before talks can resume. By contrast, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said “the script has been flipped” because President Joe Biden has offered to re-engage with the Islamic Republic.
As U.S. President Joe Biden begins a diplomatic push to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, supporters of the deal say he will need a long-term effort to succeed, while opponents say he should focus instead on pressuring Tehran into a new and tougher deal. The 2015 agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was reached between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5+1.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Tehran said on Sunday the United States must first lift sanctions on Iran if it wants to talk about salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal, reiterating its stance that it will not make the first move to restore the pact with major powers. President Joe Biden’s administration said last week it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord, which aimed to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons while lifting most international sanctions.
Iran is set to attend the meeting of an OPEC+ advisory committee next month, according to a delegate who declined to be identified. While Iran -- exempted from OPEC’s production cuts because it’s output has been hit by U.S. sanctions -- isn’t a member of the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC), it will be represented at the panel’s March 3 gathering, the delegate said. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, which include Russia, meet the following day to consider output levels for April.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Authorities in Iran said on February 21 that an imprisoned activist from the Sufi Gonabadi dervish religious minority died days after being hospitalized for what they say was poisoning caused by drug consumption. Behnam Mahjubi had been jailed after taking part in a demonstration along with other members of the Gonabadi order in 2018 and started serving a two-year prison sentence in June. Mahjubi was reportedly taken from the notorious Evin Prison and admitted to a local hospital on February 16.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
After a rocket attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad late last year, the Trump administration renewed its threats of withdrawing diplomats from Iraq. A military retaliation against Iran was discussed, and the White House warned of a drastic response “if one American is killed.” None was. Nor were any Americans killed in a similar strike this week on a United States military base at the airport in Erbil, in northern Iraq, that officials blame on an Iranian-backed militia.
President Biden’s stronger relationship with allies and partners could give him an advantage over Donald Trump in foreign affairs. But his Iran strategy will test whether appeasement with friends produces better outcomes than standing strong alone. Mr. Trump upset Iran, and America’s European allies, by leaving the 2015 nuclear deal and embarking on a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. Mr. Biden has said Washington would return to the accord and lift sanctions if Tehran returned to compliance, while the Islamic Republic demanded the inverse.
CONGRESS & IRAN
Republicans are criticizing President Biden’s move to give up on a Trump-era push to reimpose United Nations sanctions on Iran, as the administration takes a warmer tone toward Tehran. "This is outrageous and dangerous. Biden just legalized Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping selling arms to Iran," Rep Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said. "Why?" "I agree Joe," responded Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., who is on the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
On Feb. 16-17, the Russian seaside town of Sochi hosted the 15th round of Syrian peace talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey — the three guarantor countries of the so-called Astana talks. The Astana process began over four years ago, when the trio hosted talks between a Syrian opposition delegation and representatives from Damascus in the Kazakh capital of Nur Sultan (formerly Astana) in January 2017.