US to step up Iran sanctions compliance as nuclear talks drag

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The Biden administration is sending a high-level delegation to the United Arab Emirates next week in a bid to tighten compliance with sanctions against Iran as talks about the US re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal stall.

The White House confirmed Thursday that the head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control will lead the delegation to meet with UAE government officials as well as private firms and banks doing business with Tehran.

A senior official told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the US efforts, that the delegation is expected to warn UAE companies that Washington has “visibility on transactions that are not compliant with sanctions.” The official added that “those banks and firms face extreme risk if this continues.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday that the effort was “part of our extended outreach to our partners around the world to ensure that we are preparing for a range of contingencies.”

“I’m not going to present a deadline today, but what I can tell you is that we have presented a diplomatic path forward — that path is still open,” Psaki continued. “But based on the outcome of the last round of talks, and the ongoing advancements in Iran’s nuclear facilities, we are laying the path, the groundwork for another path entirely. So it’s just meant to be preparations.”

The Journal added that the Treasury visit could be followed by sanctions against UAE individuals or firms. 

an overview of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran.
An overview of Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran.
-/Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP via Getty Images

Senior officials from Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany have been meeting with Iranian diplomats in Vienna to negotiate reviving the agreement, from which the US withdrew in 2018. American representatives will be traveling to Austria this weekend to join a seventh round of talks, though Iran has refused to directly meet with the US. 

“We continue to believe that a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is possible,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday, referring to the 2015 agreement by its official acronym.

“We continue to believe that the possibility for diplomacy towards a mutual return to compliance is a viable option because we also know that it is the most durable and the best option to permanently and verifiably do what we seek to do, what our European allies seek to do, what our partners in the [nuclear agreement] — namely Russia and China — seek to do, and that is to verifiably and permanently prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

representatives attending a meeting of the joint commission on negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria.
Representatives attending a meeting of the joint commission on negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, on Dec. 9, 2021.
HANDOUT/EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/AFP via Getty Images

Price added: “We certainly hope that Iran returns to Vienna recognizing the — recognizing what a mutual return to compliance would bring, would convey for the Iranian people as well.”

The negotiations, which started back up Thursday, were halted last week after the US and European officials accused Iran of walking back on compromises initially floated in the spring. 

“Iran’s justification for continuing its nuclear advances has been that they will continue them as long as the United States is not back in compliance, which was — is a justification that doesn’t hold water when the U.S. has said and the world has witnessed that we are prepared to come back into compliance if Iran agrees to reasonable agreement for a mutual return, which they have not done,” a senior State Department official said over the weekend.

As the negotiations continue, some observers have estimated that Iran is “very close” to producing enough enriched uranium to create a nuclear weapon.

Late last month, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, warned that Iran likes “the idea of being able to breakout.” 

Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran's Fordo nuclear facility
The negotiations were halted last week after the US and European officials accused Iran of walking back on compromises.
Maxar Technologies via AP

“Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” McKenzie told Time magazine. “The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.”

Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also warned that the agency’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program has been reduced due to stonewalling from Tehran, saying recently the IAEA is “close to the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge.” 

If there is no progress in the nuclear talks, the US delegation to the UAE could be the first of many outreaches to several countries in order ratchet up economic pressure on Iran, the US officials told the Journal. 

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