The US administration lifted sanctions on three former Iranian officials and some energy companies amid the faltering nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
The Biden administration said it was willing to lift more sanctions on Tehran, in order to ease the economic pressure if the country changes course.
This came as the US, Iranian, European, and Chinese negotiators are preparing for the sixth round of talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the US, and the P+1.
The talks are expected to begin again this weekend in Vienna, according to the official spokesman for the US State Department, Ned Price.
In a press conference on Thursday, Price confirmed that the US administration is prepared to leverage its applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s ongoing provision of weapons to violent partners and proxies.
“We will continue to apply pressure on Iran if it attempts to transfer any weapons to violent partners and proxies,” he said, adding that if this is an effort to transfer weapons or otherwise to violate its international obligations, Washington is prepared to respond.
Price explained that the recent delistings are a result of a verified change in behavior or status on the part of the sanctioned parties.
"The broader point here – and we have always maintained this – sanctions are not an end to themselves. Sanctions are a means to an end," he noted.
“Every time we impose sanctions, it is our hope that through a verified change in behavior, a verified change in status, we’ll one day be able to remove those sanctions, because that means that through one way or other, our policy objectives have been met.”
The delistings demonstrate Washington’s commitment to lifting sanctions in the event of a change in behavior or status for sanctioned persons, reiterated Price, describing it as a “normal practice. It is a practice consistent with good sanctions hygiene and administrative processes.”
However, he stressed that lifting the sanctions is not linked to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or to negotiations that are ongoing in Vienna.
Price noted that the US administration believes in the rules-based international order, and freedom of navigation is something that “we espouse for ourselves and for international partners.”
If Iran would seek to affect the transfer of weapons or other illicit materials, Washington would be prepared to hold it accountable.
“Freedom of navigation is a principle we defend for ourselves,” asserted Price, adding that it is an element of the broader rules-based international order that Washington believes, defends, and promotes not only because it applies to it but because it applies to the rest of the world.
He noted that the Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley will be returning to Vienna along with his team for the sixth round of negotiations.
“We have always said we expected this to be a multi-round set of negotiations,” he said, noting that this was an opportunity for the Iranian side to crystallize the steps they would need to take to resume compliance with the JCPOA.
The Treasury and State Departments said it lifted sanctions "on three former government of Iran officials, and two companies previously involved in the purchase, acquisition, sale, transport, or marketing of Iranian petrochemical products, as a result of a verified change in status or behavior on the part of the sanctioned parties,” as part of a routine technical practice.
Officials familiar with talks underway in Vienna on the future of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement told the Wall Street Journal that the Biden administration has been looking at how it could inject momentum into the negotiations.
“Oil prices tumbled nearly 2 percent after the news, but quickly regained their losses, continuing to trade over $70 a barrel.”
US and European officials have said significant differences remain between Washington and Tehran over how to restore the nuclear deal, including the extent of any potential sanctions relief.
The Vienna negotiations now look very likely to drift past Iran’s presidential elections on June 18, which some Western officials saw as a target date to complete the talks because of their potential effect on Iran’s position.
US officials have said they would be prepared to lift most sanctions on Iran’s oil, petrochemical and shipping sectors as part of a deal to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Washington has insisted it will maintain other anti-terrorism sanctions, including that on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and al-Quds Force.
Meanwhile, Russia is preparing to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system that will give Tehran an unprecedented ability to track potential military targets across the Middle East and beyond, according to current and former US and Middle Eastern officials briefed on details of the arrangement.
The Washington Post reported that the plan would deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house US troops.
Iranian military officials have been heavily involved in the acquisition, and leaders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement, the officials said.
As recently as this spring, Russian experts traveled to Iran to help train ground crews that would operate the satellite from a newly built facility near the northern city of Karaj, according to the officials.