Diplomats from the U.S. and Iran converged in Vienna on Tuesday in an attempt to revive the beleaguered 2015 nuclear agreement, the first potential thaw in diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington since the Trump administration left the accord in 2018. American and Iranian officials aren’t meeting directly, but are working through European intermediaries, who also gathered in the Austrian capital alongside representatives from the other parties to the deal, Russia and China.
The United States is prepared to remove sanctions on Iran to resume compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, including those that are inconsistent with the 2015 pact, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday, without providing details. “We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. He was referring to the pact formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Diplomats from major powers met separately on Wednesday with Iran and the United States to discuss how to bring both back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal that Washington abandoned three years ago. Neither the United States nor Iran expect fast breakthroughs in the talks that began in Vienna on Tuesday, with European and other diplomats acting as intermediaries because Tehran rejects face-to-face talks for now. Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, which lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear program.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran has made 55 kg of uranium enriched to up to 20% - the point at which it is highly enriched - indicating quicker production than the 10 kg a month rate required by an Iranian law that created the process in January, Iranian authorities said on Wednesday. The disclosure comes a day after Tehran and Washington held what they described as “constructive” indirect talks in Vienna on Tuesday aimed at finding ways to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
U.S. and Iranian officials are calling talks in Vienna productive as the two sides and the other signatories of a 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program work to revive the deal. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said there is no expectation of direct negotiations for now, but that the United States is “open to them because we are open to diplomacy.” He said the meetings in Vienna are a “potentially useful step as we seek to determine what it is that the Iranians are prepared to do to return to compliance” with the agreement, which limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Talks between the UN atomic watchdog and Iran aimed at prizing answers from Tehran on unexplained uranium traces have been delayed, narrowing a window to make progress or risk undoing a wider push for detente with the West, three diplomats said, according to Reuters. Iran’s 2015 deal with world powers effectively drew a line under what the International Atomic Energy Agency and US intelligence agencies believe was a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that Tehran halted in 2003.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
A group of more than 300 prominent Iranian Americans are petitioning the Biden administration to publicly support dissident efforts to overthrow the Islamic Republic’s hardline clerical government. As the Biden administration seeks direct talks with Iran’s mullahs in pursuit of a revamped nuclear agreement, the group of Iranian Americans—including scholars, professors, physicians, and industry executives—is warning the White House against unwinding economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and sparked widespread anti-government protests.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
At National Review, Elliott Abrams worries that Team Biden “is planning to do exactly what the Obama administration did just over five years ago: make a deal with Iran that abandons Americans held hostage there.” In 2015, then-Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the mullahs would release the unjustly detained Siamak Namazi as part of the Iran deal, but “that pledge was evidently false, as Siamak has just completed his 2,000th day in prison,” and his 84-year-old father remains under house arrest.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
An Iranian-flagged ship was damaged Tuesday when it was struck by an explosion in the Red Sea, Iran's Foreign Ministry and Tasnim News Agency said Wednesday. The explosion, which the agency said was caused by limpet mines, bore the hallmarks of attacks in an escalating maritime clash between regional adversaries Israel and Iran. The incident occurred early Tuesday, at a delicate moment, as U.S., Iranian and European negotiators were preparing to hold talks in Vienna aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.
A day-long sea exercise conducted by Pakistan and Iran’s navies in the Arabian Gulf on Tuesday was unplanned and part of a “goodwill gesture,” a spokesman for the Pakistan navy has said, rejecting media reports that it was based on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two countries. “There was no planned exercise between the two countries. This was a passage exercise as a goodwill gesture,” the spokesman, requesting anonymity, told Arab News on Tuesday.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran shattered its daily record for new infections for the second consecutive day on Wednesday as cases soared to 20,954, a worrisome trend after more than a year of the country battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East. Iran’s severe surge triggered new movement restrictions in major cities Wednesday following a two-week public holiday for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which drove millions to travel to the Caspian coast and other popular vacation spots, pack markets to shop for new clothes and toys and congregate in homes for parties in defiance of government health guidelines.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made headlines last week when he made a late-night appearance in Clubhouse, the increasingly popular group audio-chat mobile app. Even though hours into the conversation he said it was past his bedtime, the country’s top diplomat stayed longer to discuss issues that ranged from Iran’s recent controversial 25-year cooperation accord with China, to its nuclear deal with world powers, to again denying he has aspirations to become president, to his bedtime routine.
CONGRESS & IRAN
A number of top Senate Republicans have sent a letter to President Biden protesting efforts to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and any lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The letter comes as Biden officials are participating in indirect talks with Iran and international signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the nuclear deal, on how best to bring the U.S. and Iran back to compliance with the agreement.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday urged the world not to revive the troubled international nuclear deal with Iran as he opened Israel’s annual memorial day for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Speaking as world powers are launching a new effort to bring the United States back into the foundering 2015 deal, Netanyahu also said that Israel was not obligated to respect it. “History has taught us that deals like this, with extremist regimes like this, are worth nothing,” Netanyahu added.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggression in the Middle East on Tuesday afternoon, it sounded like his usual shpiel – so much so that he even said “I’m not just paying lip service.” In that moment, it seemed that his key message, in remarks to a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, was about the indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the US to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, facilitated by the parties to that deal.
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 US troops out of the region. Fighting has been raging in the mountains outside Marib as Iran-aligned 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 air attacks repeatedly to blunt the Houthi advance towards Marib.
IRAQ & IRAN
Iraq’s prime minister asked Iran’s leaders to rein in Iran-backed militias in Iraq and in a strongly worded message to Tehran, suggested he would confront the factions, two Iraqi officials said Wednesday. Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s statement came as the third round of strategic talks with Washington got under way, the first under President Joe Biden. The talks — held virtually because of the pandemic — began in June and are expected to center on an array of issues, including the presence of remaining US combat forces in Iraq and Iran-backed groups acting outside of state authority.
AFGHANISTAN & IRAN
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) reports it is covering the cost of health insurance for an additional 20,000 Afghan refugees in Iran. This boosts the number of refugees to 120,000 who will be able to access medical care for COVID-19 and other illnesses under Iran’s national health plan. Iran hosts nearly 800,000 Afghan refugees. Over the past year, the UNHCR has paid insurance premiums for 100,000 of the most vulnerable refugees. Given the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it now has boosted that number by another 20,000.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is looking east, rather than to Vienna, where talks are supposed to take place regarding the Iran deal. This symbolic move shows that Iran is putting on a strong face in Europe and showing it doesn’t need the talks to go anywhere. From April 5 to 8, Iran’s top diplomat will be in Central Asia. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said promoting “civilizational, historical and cultural” affinities with Central Asian states has been among Iran’s priorities. Zarif will go to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the ministry announced on Saturday.