Reuters - Talks between the U.N. atomic watchdog and Iran aimed at prising answers from Tehran on unexplained uranium traces have been delayed, narrowing a window to make progress or risk undoing a wider push for detente with the West, three diplomats said.
In the past two years, however, IAEA inspectors have found traces of processed uranium at three sites Iran never declared to it, suggesting that Tehran had nuclear material connected to old activities that remain unaccounted for.
The IAEA needs to track that material down to be sure Iran is not diverting any to make nuclear weapons.
In a bid to break the impasse, and avert an escalation between Tehran and the West, the IAEA has said it would hold talks with Iran as of the start of April with the aim of making progress by early June.
Those talks are taking place in parallel with negotiations in Vienna aimed at rescuing the nuclear deal and without substantial progress could stoke distrust and harm the prospects of bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance.
“It’s been pushed back several weeks regarding the April start. Could be as little as two,” a European diplomatic source said, adding that the reason was technical.
Two diplomats also said there was a delay, one of whom said the IAEA delegation would be headed by inspections chief Massimo Aparo.
The IAEA has said it is “deeply concerned” at the prospect of undeclared nuclear material in Iran. It says Iran has not credibly explained the first particles it found, at a site in Tehran that Iran said was a carpet-cleaning facility, and is seeking answers on those found last year at two other sites.
Araghchi Says 1,500 Sanctions Must Be Removed Before US Can Rejoin JCPOA
The United States must remove 1,500 sanctions in order to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Iranian state broadcaster on Saturday.
The negotiations in Vienna this week were about preparing the list of these sanctions, Araghchi said. He added that all sanctions lifted by the JCPOA, as well as all sanctions imposed by the previous US administration must be removed. These include sanctions related to areas of activities, as well as against individuals and entities.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and launched his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the Islamic Republic, imposing and reimposing hundreds of sanctions. Some of those are designated as terrorism sanctions and lifting them would be politically difficult for the new administration.
US State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter has told Iran International of sanctions “inconsistent” with JCPOA that can be removed, but it is not clear what those are.
A senior US State Department official told reporters on Friday that "If Iran sticks to the position that every sanction that has been imposed since 2017 has to be lifted or there will be no deal, then we are heading towards an impasse.”
In a separate appearance, Araghchi told Iran’s Press TV that negotiations should reach a conclusion in six weeks, when still a three-month temporary agreement of inspections is in place with the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. Otherwise, the restoration of the nuclear agreement will become more complicated.
With Covid Surge, 335 Writers Want Prisoners Of Conscience Released
More than 330 Iranian writers and poets have written to judicial and government authorities demanding the release of prisoners of conscience amid a surge in the Covid-19 pandemic in Iran.
The signatories of the letter, made public on Saturday [April 10], have reiterated that “freedom of speech and freedom of pen” are not crimes. “Considering the terrible news about the spread of coronavirus in prisons and infection of some of our detained colleagues, the full responsibility for their lives and health is on your shoulders,” they write.
The signatories have urged officials to allow temporary release from prison of writers and other political prisoners as the minimum action required to protect their lives. The letter names several writers jailed on vague charges, some for insulting officials or sanctities, who have Covid.
Last October, PEN International asked sympathizers to write to Iran’s authorities over the imprisonment of three prominent writers − Baktash Abtin, Kayvan Bazhan, and Reza Khandan − who were summoned to serve six-year prison terms. The three were charged with membership of the banned Writers Association of Iran. Abtin has contracted the coronavirus in prison.
Although Iran’s constitution and laws recognize freedom of speech, the latest Amnesty annual report on Iran, published on April 7, said “hundreds of people remained arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their human rights…[including] protesters, journalists, media workers, political dissidents, artists, writers and human rights defenders.”
Concerned Over Nuclear Talks, Saudi Prince Denounces Iran’s ‘Dogs’
Prince Turki bin Faisal Al-Saud, the former intelligence minister of Saudi Arabia often seen as reflecting official views, has said Vienna talks over Iran’s nuclear program do not alleviate concerns of Gulf Arab states about threats posed by Iran. In an online forum hosted by the Bahraini newspaper Al-Bilad on April 9, Prince Turki said that all these concerns should be considered by world powers negotiating with Iran.
“We cannot ignore the dangers of the regional behavior of the Iranian leadership and separate it from the dangers of its nuclear program,” the Prince said. He added that Iranian ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads added to concern.
Both the Gulf Arab states and Israel have asked the Biden administration to be involved in any new talks with Iran, and Biden officials promised to consult “partners” in the region. It is not clear how far Washington has opened its playbook to regional allies, while Israel has continued to oppose a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal and lifting United States sanctions.
“We live every day in such a danger, as this [Iranian] leadership did not hesitate to provide its dogs in the region with the means to target us with long-range missiles,” Turki al-Faisal said, “and we know what they can do in the future.”
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal separated Iran’s nuclear program from other matters. Saudi Arabia itself has long maintained an arsenal of ballistic missiles and operates advanced US-supplied strike aircraft. In its six-year intervention in the Yemen war, Saudi Arabia has faced Houthi forces with missiles believed to have been supplied by Iran.
Israel Presents Iran's Missile Violations To UN Security Council, Demands Action
In a letter to the UN Security Council, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan demanded action against Iran after allegations that Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has tested ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads, violating UN Security Council 2231 resolution.
The Israeli move comes as members of the UN Security Council are meeting in Vienna with Iran and as the US considers returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“I strongly urge the Security Council to condemn these ongoing violations by Iran of UNSCR 2231, and call on members to respond to the clear threat to international peace and security posed by the Iranian nuclear program, their ballistic missile program, and the regime’s active arms proliferation," Erdan said in his letter.
Erdan also provided some details about the IRGC missiles in his letter. Israeli media had called Israel’s access to these details another success for the country’s intelligence agencies.
“Furthermore, I call on the UN secretariat to investigate and report the findings of the cases outlined in this letter. It is imperative that these violations be reflected in the upcoming report of the implementation of UNSCR 2231, and for the Security Council to remain actively seized of these matters in its deliberations,” he wrote.
Erdan once again reiterated Israel’s position regarding the Islamic Republic that “Israel will defend its citizens with everything in its power.”
South-Korean Prime Minister To Visit Iran After Release Of Tanker
The Spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the South-Korean Prime Minister will travel to Tehran to discuss issues such as the release of Iran’s frozen funds in South-Korean banks.
Saeed Khatibzadeh announced that the trip will occur next week, and they are finalizing the trip’s technical details. This is the first visit of a South-Korean Prime Minister to Iran in the past 44 years. The visit was announced after the release of the South-Korean ship that was seized by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).
Khatibzadeh confirmed Friday morning [April 9] that Iran had released the Korean-flagged MT Hankuk, its captain and 12 remaining crew, all detained by Iran since January 4. The tanker’s seizure was widely linked to Iran’s lack of access to around $7 billion in funds frozen by Korean banks wary of United States secondary sanctions.
Iranian and South Korean foreign ministries have made no explicit link between the freed tanker and the frozen funds. The Iranian media quoted one official that Korea had given assurances they were “trying to solve the problem and to strengthen ties.” Reuters quoted a South Korean foreign ministry official that Seoul had expressed “our firm willingness to resolve the fund issue.”
Hopes for the vessel’s release grew after Khatibzadeh said on April 5 that the foreign ministry had made suggestions to the judiciary over the case and that the ship and captain, held at Bandar Abbas, had "no previous bad record in the region."
Exiled Iranian Prince Calls Agreement With China 'Treasonous'
In a public statement, exiled Iranian Prince Reza Pahlavi called the Islamic Republic’s recent controversial agreement with China “treasonous” and Ali Khamenei “among the most treasonous leaders in Iran’s history”. He also said while the Islamic Republic is heavily isolated and faces financial and political legitimacy crises, it intends to give the country to foreigners "with the hope of surviving a bit longer."
The 25-year agreement between Iran and China was signed in March by the Iranian and Chinese Foreign Ministers after it was finalized and approved by Ali Larijani, the Khamenei's representative to oversee the agreement. Despite public outrage, Islamic Republic officials still refuse to release the content of the agreement.
Addressing the Iranian people, Prince Reza Pahlavi said in his message: “As many of you are aware, every day that the Islamic Republic controls the fate of Iran and Iranians, it means a weaker Iran falling behind in the world. Each day of Islamic Republic’s rule equals more corruption and poverty for the Iranian people and more destruction of opportunities for future generations.”
“It’s not just our country’s wealth and natural resources and land and water and independence that is being surrendered to foreigners, but the future of our children that the Islamic Republic is giving away for a few more days of survival. The brokers of this treason are hiding the content of the deal from the real owners of the country, the citizens” the prince added.
Addressing Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr. Pahlavi said: “Judgement day is near…I believe your name will go down in history among the worst tyrants in the world.”
White House Claims US Iran Detainees Are Being Discussed In Vienna
White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki claimed on Thursday [April 8] during a briefing that the fate of Americans held in Iran was being raised during nuclear talks in Vienna. Psaki said the United States had raised the matter “with partners around the world and those who are having direct discussions with the Iranians.” The US is not directly part of the Vienna talks under the rubric of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which the Trump administration left in 2018.
“In terms of the focus and content of these discussions, I know they’ll do a readout when they conclude the meetings, likely tomorrow,” Psaki said. “These discussions are often raised through different channels we have with the Iranians, given the fact that we’re not currently having direct talks on — on even issues like the nuclear negotiations. But I’m not going to have an update beyond that from here.”
Iran has detained several Americans and other Western nationals and dual nationals since 2016, with UN rapporteurs and human rights organizations accused Tehran of hostages to gain leverage in negotiations. But they have also criticized the US detention of tens of thousands under its ‘war on terror’.
Many Iranians, opposition groups and families of the detainees believe the US and Europe should make human rights and political prisoners in Iran an issue in talks.
Iran Nuclear Spokesman: Enriched Uranium Stockpile Growing
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent has reached 60kg after the deployment of more advanced centrifuges that have increased efficiency, the spokesman of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behruz Kamalvandi told local media on Friday [April 9].
The spokesman also said that using relatively advanced centrifuges had boosted efficiency in enrichment by around 20 percent compared to before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement Iran signed with world powers in 2015.
The JCPOA limited enrichment in Iran to just 3.67 percent. Following the agreement, Iran exported 200kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent, other than a small amount retained as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which makes medical isotopes.
After the US left the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed sanctions, Iran began enriching to around 5 percent in 2019 and to 20 percent in January as a means of pressure to have sanctions lifted.
Kamalvandi said Iran needed enriched uranium for its Bushehr reactor, which began producing electricity in 2013, and for the Tehran Research Reactor, but did not explain any need for current production levels. “We should not emphasize enrichment,” he said.
Kamalvandi also announced that Iran would on Saturday unveil its most advanced centrifuge, the IR-9, which he called a “big leap”, at a virtual event demonstrating that Iran’s nuclear program was more advanced than eight years ago, when international negotiations involving the US began over Tehran’s nuclear program. The spokesman said Iran owed Russia 500 million euros for assistance and services over the Bushehr reactor.
Ukraine Renews Criticism After Iran Indicts Ten Over Shooting Down Plane
Iran is manipulating information and data related to the downing of an airliner in January 2020, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement Friday [April 9]. Kyiv also criticized comments by Iran’s foreign ministry that Ukraine needed to be “constructive” over the matter.
The Ukrainian Airlines flight PS-752 was shot down by two surface-t0-air missiles fired from a mobile launcher operated by Revolutionary Guards shortly after it took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on January 8, 2020, hours after Iran’s fired ballistic missiles at two United States bases in Iraq. Despite fears of US retaliation and putting defenses on high alert, Iran did not suspend civilian flights, and the missiles were fired at the plane due, Tehran has said, due to human error in aligning the mobile battery and to poor communication.
Ukraine and Canada, which had 55 citizens and 30 permanent residents on the flight, demanded that Iran be more transparent in its investigation and share greater information. Iran and Ukraine held talks in 2020, during which Tehran promised a full report. Both Canada and Ukraine condemned the technical report published by Iran in March, and their criticism continued when the Tehran military prosecutor announced on April 6 the indictment of ten people, without revealing details.
The latest foreign ministry statement said Iran was “manipulating when it says that during two rounds of talks, explanations were given about the causes of the disaster.” Kyiv insisted it would not accept “just any version” of the plane’s downing without “real evidence.” Tehran has offered $150,000 in compensation for each victim, while families have opened legal action in Canadian and reportedly American courts.
House Republicans Tell Blinken They Will Reject Sanctions Relief For Iran
Congressional Republicans have sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken Wednesday informing him that they will not be bound to any agreement with Iran that would grant relief from economic sanctions, The Washington Free Beacon reported.
The letter was signed by Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.) and Jim Banks (Ind), who reminded Blinken that in his confirmation hearing he had said that he and President Joe Biden were committed to restoring Congress’ role in foreign policy.
They also noted that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 “requires the President to submit any agreement with Iran to a congressional vote before sanctions are lifted.”
The two Congressmen represent the Republican Study Group, the largest conservative caucus in Congress, which “has taken an official position pledging to oppose, and to work to reverse, any sanctions relief for Iran unless the regime meets all 12 demands laid out by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”
The letter would be a signal to Tehran that even if it reaches agreement with the Biden Administration, a future Republican president can abandon it just as Donald Trump did with the JCPOA that was not ratified by Congress.
Many Republican and some Democratic lawmakers have already written to the White House several times warning against returning to the JCPOA that they consider a “flawed” deal and lifting US sanctions, they consider as necessary leverage to force Iran to change its behavior.