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The U.S. has made no secret of its determination to strictly enforce the remaining energy and banking sanctions on Iran, actively discouraging European companies from rushing to do business with Tehran following November’s nuclear deal.
Yet there were fresh suggestions from a senior U.S. official Monday that this pitch had not yet yielded results.
As my colleagues Benoit Faucon and Jay Solomon have reported, the Obama administration has sent Treasury officials to London, Paris and other European capitals to meet business executives and hammer home the message that the November deal – which took effect on Jan. 20 – offered only limited and temporary sanctions relief. Last week, in a joint press conference with French PresidentFrancois Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama said the U.S. would come down on companies that evade sanctions “like a ton of bricks.”
Under the November interim deal, meant to last for six months, Iran clipped back some of its advanced nuclear work in exchange for a suspension of sanctions on Iran’s petrochemicals sales, its automotive sector and trade in gold and precious metals. Washington and Brussels moved to ease financial transfers to Iran over the next 180 days and the U.S. agreed to unfreeze in eight installments some $4.2 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues held overseas.
Still, the U.S. outreach on sanctions has had mixed results. European business missions have continued to visit Tehran. There is talk of an exchange deal that sees Russia supply a new research reactor in exchange for oil and the likes of China, which like Russia is a member of the six power group that negotiates with Iran, is expected to step up Iranian oil imports.
Iran drew a red line on Tuesday on how far it would go at landmark nuclear talks, saying as the meeting opened that it would not buckle to pressure from the U.S. and five other world powers to scrap any of its nuclear facilities.
The statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggested tough talks ahead, constituting a rejection of a central demand by the six countries.
The talks are designed to build on a first-step deal that came into effect last month and commits Iran to initial curbs on its nuclear program in return for some easing of sanctions. The deal can be extended, if both sides agree to do so after six months.
Iran insists it is not interested in producing nuclear weapons, but the six powers want Tehran to back its words with concessions.
They seek an agreement that will leave Iran with little capacity to quickly ramp up its nuclear program into weapons-making mode with enriched uranium or plutonium, which can be used for the fissile core of a missile.
For that, they say Iran needs to dismantle or store most of its 20,000 uranium enriching centrifuges, including some of those not yet working. The six powers also demand that an Iranian reactor being built be either scrapped or converted from a heavy-water setup to a light-water facility that makes less plutonium.
According to a background briefing from the State Department, daily access by the International Atomic Energy Agency to Iran's enrichment facilities has begun.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Takashi with NHK Broadcasting. As far as an implementation of the first measures is concerned, are you satisfied with the pace and scope of Iranians’ implementation so far? And are you going to talk about it tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tomorrow is focused on beginning the negotiation of the comprehensive agreement, not to look backwards at the JPOA. As I said, the IAEA will be providing a monthly report verifying the monitoring is done and all of that is taking place. I think Dr. Timbie told me that, in fact, the daily access is now daily. I know from Richard Nephew, who also works on the sanctions, that we’ve put pieces in place. And obviously Adam Szubin here from Treasury – all of that is going forward. So I think, gentlemen, you would say satisfied that things are being implemented. Yes.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have one thing in common: Both have voiced doubts that the talks starting today in Vienna will produce a deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.
That’s only in part because negotiators need to hack through a thicket of technical and political issues to close the distance between the two sides’ opening positions. It’s also because some of the most important negotiations will be on the home fronts in Tehran andWashington.
Hardliners in Iran are pressing President Hassan Rouhani to reject dismantling any part of his country’s nuclear infrastructure. In the U.S. in a congressional election year, some lawmakers and lobbying groups -- backed by American ally Israel -- urge Obama to accept nothing less than elimination of virtually all Iranian nuclear activities, as well as intrusive inspections to ensure that the Islamic Republic can’t secretly develop a nuclear weapons capability.
The Obama administration has ambitious objectives for curtailing Iran’s program, and that’s “not merely for show,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization. Given the pressure from Capitol Hill and Israel, sticking with a tough position is “what the traffic will bear in this town,” she said.
Obama has said publicly that the odds are no better than 50-50 that an interim accord now in effect will lead to a lasting agreement allowing Iran a limited nuclear enrichment program with sufficient safeguards to satisfy Israel, the U.S. and the world. Even so, Obama says diplomacy remains the best means to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The first round of talks between Iran and six major world powers aimed at a final deal permanently curbing Tehran's nuclear program started Tuesday morning.
The talks in Vienna, which are slated to last six months, follow a landmark interim agreement reached in November that saw Tehran freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of Western economic sanctions.
Negotiators from Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, sat down shortly before midday local time in Vienna. It followed discussions Monday evening between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the six power group.
American and Iranian officials both warned Monday that the new round of diplomacy—aimed at permanently ending what the West views as Iran's nuclear weapons threat—will be much more difficult to conclude.
Senior U.S. officials have outlined a negotiating position that calls for Tehran to drastically roll back its nuclear infrastructure to ensure its program is solely for peaceful purposes.
The U.S. is likely to call for the dismantling or mothballing of thousands of Iran's centrifuge machines, which are used to produce nuclear fuel, and the shuttering or conversion of nuclear sites.
Senior Iranian officials have repeatedly rejected any major curtailment of their program.Tehran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday said he was doubtful that there will be a diplomatic breakthrough, though the Islamic cleric said he still backed the diplomatic process.
"What our officials started will continue. We will not renege," Mr. Khamenei told a crowd in Tabriz, according to Iranian state media. "But I will say again: There is no use…it will not lead anywhere."