The Biden administration on Thursday lifted sanctions on three former Iranian government officials and two Iranian companies involved in the country’s oil industry, a conciliatory gesture days before a potentially decisive round of nuclear talks in Vienna, the New York Times reported.
The administration cautioned against reading too much into the move. Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, claimed there was “absolutely no connection” between the sanctions and discussions among several world powers and Tehran.
Those talks are intended to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 deal that attempted to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for an end to many of the international sanctions that have squeezed the country’s economy.
In the same statements announcing that the United States had lifted some sanctions, the State and Treasury Departments also said they were imposing new ones on a dozen Iranian individuals, entities and vessels for providing financial support to the Ansarullah revolutionaries in Yemen.
A sixth round of nuclear talks is set to begin in Vienna this weekend. Robert Einhorn, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, said that the timing of the US announcements suggested a connection to the nuclear issue, and that it might be a signal of American flexibility.
The United States has been negotiating with Iran since April, though only indirectly, through intermediaries in Vienna, because of Tehran’s refusal to speak directly with American officials.
Biden administration officials have said for weeks that they are prepared to lift sanctions on Iran as part of a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 deal, and that the main obstacle to an agreement is whether Iran’s leadership is prepared to respond by scaling back its nuclear activities.
The 2015 deal, negotiated by the Obama administration and several other world powers, traded Western sanctions relief in return for Iran’s agreement to accept limits on — and international monitoring of — its nuclear program to ensure that it did not try to build a weapon. Iran stresses repeatedly that its program is for peaceful purposes only.
Former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and hammered Iran with economic sanctions in what he called a campaign of “maximum pressure.” In response, Iran then began expanding its nuclear program and is now enriching uranium to levels and in quantities far beyond those allowed under the agreement.