US announces new round of sanctions after Tehran moves to produce uranium metal; Biden appoints new negotiator.
Iran’s move towards producing uranium metal could only be used to produce weapons, the governments of France, Germany and the United Kingdom warned in a statement on Saturday.
“Iran has no credible civilian use for uranium metal,” the group, known as the E3 in the context of the Iran nuclear deal, warned. “The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications.”
The E3 statement came after Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Wednesday that they would begin research on producing uranium metal, which Tehran claimed was meant to provide fuel to a research reactor in Tehran.
The IAEA said: “Iran informed the Agency in a letter on 13 January that ‘modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started.’”
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran deal is known, blocked the production or acquisition of plutonium or uranium metal or their alloys for 15 years. Iran would have been able to begin to research producing fuel based on uranium metal in 2025 if the other partners to the agreement would agree to it.
France, Germany and the UK said it is “deeply concerned” by Iran’s preparation to produce uranium metal.
“We strongly urge Iran to halt this activity, and return to compliance with its JCPOA commitments without further delay if it is serious about preserving the deal,” the E3 said.
Iran’s announcement that it would work to produce uranium metal came over a week after Tehran said it would begin enriching uranium up to 20%, going beyond the JCPOA’s enrichment limitations.
The US left the Iran deal in 2018, moving to a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime. Iran deal supporters point to the fact that the mullahs’ regime began major violations of the JCPOA after the American departure, while the proponents point out that the fact that Iran could jump to violating the deal so drastically – like 20% enrichment – and so easily means that the agreement was not working in the first place.
The US pressure campaign continued on Friday, in the final days of the Trump administration, with the US State Department announcing sanctions on anyone who transfers any of 15 materials used for Iran’s nuclear, military or ballistic missiles program. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls Iran’s construction sector.”
Pompeo also announced sanctions on companies in Iran, China and the United Arab Emirates for working with the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, as well some of their executives.
The US will also sanction Iran’s Marine Industries Organization, Aerospace Industries Organization and Iran Aviation Industries Organization for engaging in activities related to conventional arms proliferation.
US President-elect Joe Biden has said he seeks to return to the Iran deal, along with strict Iranian compliance to its terms.
UAE’s Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba, Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United States Abdulla R. Al Khalifa, and Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer participated in a discussion about Iran and the possibility of the US returning to the 2015 JCPOA hosted by The Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“We do oppose a return to the same nuclear deal in 2015,” Dermer said at the event.
“We hope the new administration will sit down with Israel, will sit down with the Emirates, with Bahrain, with its other allies in the region, talk to us because we live in the region, we know a little something about our own security,” Dermer continued.
“And just as in the case with North Korea, when you’re doing negotiations with them, you would listen to Japan, you would listen to South Korea and my guess is you’d listened to them even more than you’d listened to the British, French, and Germans. And I think the same case here. Israel and the Arab States are on the same page, as you say, when it comes to Iran. I think that means something and hopefully, we can engage in that dialogue with the new Biden administration and hopefully find that common ground moving forward.”
Otaiba said that the US has “a lot of leverage” over Iran right now. “And I think one of the things we should seriously consider doing is look at a bigger and better JCPOA 2.0, one that addresses the shortcomings of JCPOA 1.0.”
“We thought it was a good start, we don’t think it went nearly far enough,” Otaiba said. “We don’t think the voices of the region were represented at the negotiations. So, I think what we would advocate is one, let’s look at how to strengthen it and not cede all the leverage that you have upfront. Let’s strengthen the US diplomatic team and bring in your regional partners who tend to be aligned on this.”
The White House announced that it will designate the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain as “Major Security Partners” of the United States on Friday.
“The designation as a “Major Security Partner” is a status unique to the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain,” the White House press secretary said in a statement. “It recognizes our exceptional security partnership – exemplified by their hosting thousands of United States Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines – and the commitment of each country to countering violent extremism across the region.”
She went on to say that “most notably, both countries have participated in numerous United States-led coalitions over the past 30 years.” However, the White House announcement did not specify how the new status would affect the US relationship with these countries moving forward.
The designation comes on the heels of the Abraham Accords and the Trump administration’s final days.
On Saturday, Biden announced that Iran deal negotiator Wendy Sherman would hold the number-two position at the State Department, confirming earlier reports.
Sherman, who has a masters degree in social work, was the State Department counselor from 1997 to 2001, a period when she was also policy coordinator on North Korea. From 1993 to 1996 she served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.
Because of her association with the Iran deal, which was fiercely opposed by Republicans and some Democrats, Sherman had been expected to face some trouble winning Senate confirmation. However, her path will be easier after Biden’s fellow Democrats won two run-off elections on January 5 that will grant them control of the Senate.
Sherman is currently a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategy and commercial diplomacy firm.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be Secretary of State.
MEANWHILE, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced measures “expressing congressional opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed weapons sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
“There is no justification for the Trump administration’s decision to rush through the sale of thousands of bombs to Saudi Arabia – especially after last year’s sham ‘emergency’ sale of 60,000 munitions,” Meeks said in a statement. “Yemen has already been described by the UN as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, and that crisis is worsened when weapons sold by the United States are being used recklessly, costing the lives of civilians.”
“I strongly support the incoming Biden administration’s pledge to conduct a thorough policy review,” said Meeks. According to the statement, the joint resolutions of disapproval were co-sponsored by Representatives Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and James McGovern (D-MA).
The US State Department has approved the potential sale of 3,000 precision guided munitions to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in a deal valued at up to $290 billion, the Pentagon said on December 30.
The sale comes in the final days of US President Donald Trump’s term. Biden has pledged to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, in a bid to pressure Riyadh to end the devastating war in Yemen.