This Week in Iran Policy
“I think we have demonstrated the right foreign policy with respect to Iran, and I am hopeful that the world will continue the policies that we have, and that one day Iran will rejoin the community of nations”
– Secretary Pompeo, Interview with Ben Shapiro, December 15, 2020
Sanctioning Supporters of Iran’s Petroleum and Petrochemical Sectors, December 16.
Petroleum and petrochemicals are major sources of revenue for the Iranian regime, revenue it employs to oppress the Iranian people and to advance its malign foreign agenda.
The Department of State is imposing sanctions on Vietnam Gas and Chemicals Transportation Corporation, a vessel manager, pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13846, for knowingly engaging, on or after November 5, 2018, in a significant transaction for the transport of petroleum products from Iran. The Department of State is also imposing sanctions pursuant to E.O. 13846 on the company’s Managing Director, Vo Ngoc Phung, for serving as a principal executive officer of the company.
Concurrently, the Department of the Treasury is imposing sanctions on four entities pursuant to E.O 13846, for providing material assistance or support to Triliance Petrochemical Co. Ltd., a U.S. designated entity. They are China-based Donghai International Ship Management Limited and Petrochem South East Limited, as well as UAE-based Alpha Tech Trading FZE and Petroliance Trading FZE.
As a direct result of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, Iran’s military and “security” budget proposal for next year has decreased by a massive 24 percent. These latest sanctions degrade the regime’s ability to inflict human rights abuses on the Iranian people. We reiterate that only a fundamental change in the Iranian regime’s behavior can provide a path towards sanctions relief.
For more information about today’s action, please see the Department of the Treasury’s press release.
Special Representative Elliott Abrams Remarks on the Iran Nuclear Threat, December 15.
I want to start by noting the regime’s brutal killing of Ruhollah Zam over the weekend. This is a regime that does not hesitate to kidnap and execute a journalist who opposes the regime. In fact, the IRGC proudly published photographs of him blindfolded after his abduction. This is on top of the regime’s execution of the champion wrestler Navid Afkari just in September in an attempt to intimidate protesters. It is another reminder that we are dealing with a brutal and radical regime that does not hesitate to defy international law and norms to assert power and control. That is why it is so crucial that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism never acquire the world’s most deadly weapon.
Today, thanks to the success of our sanctions, Iran is looking to come back to the negotiating table to get relief. In those talks, it is important that the United States focus on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional terrorism and support for armed proxies, and its hostage taking, in addition to the nuclear file. Today, I will focus on the nuclear aspect, but that does not diminish the importance of the other areas. As we prepare for the debates about Iran that are to come, it is critical for the policy community to remember three key points that should continue guiding our policy on Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s Nuclear Program Remains About a Weapons “Option” – First, those trying to solve the nuclear problem should remember why and how we face this challenge in the first place. Iran’s prior covert efforts to develop fissile material production capabilities related, from the beginning, not to peaceful purposes, but to nuclear weapons ambitions.
Iran started its efforts to build a uranium enrichment capability hidden from the IAEA – by using equipment from A.Q. Khan. The material-production was part of a broader covert program that included work to design and build nuclear weapons. After its secret uranium enrichment facility at Natanz was publicly exposed in 2002, Iran built a second clandestine enrichment facility in a fortified underground bunker at Fordow. And the nuclear reactor Iran was secretly building at Arak was ideally suited for the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
We should not forget that even after Iran halted some nuclear weapons work when faced with U.S. and broader international pressure in 2003, it continued to develop certain nuclear capabilities that it began, at least in part, in order to be able to produce nuclear weapons. Even worse, we now know that the Iranian regime also preserved and hid a massive amount of documentation from its nuclear weapons program, while keeping many of its original weapons scientists working together on dual-use technologies. Iran’s actions give every appearance of it wanting to retain the option of bringing all these elements back together again. And as Iran continues to expand its proliferation-sensitive activities and enriched-uranium stockpile today, it better positions itself to break out and produce the nuclear material those scientists would need for weapons.
Over one year ago, the IAEA’s Board of Governors met in a special session to address the detection of chemically-processed uranium particles at an undeclared location in Iran. Now, nearly two years after the Secretariat’s initial engagement with Iran on this topic, the IAEA’s Director General recently reported that Iran’s responses remain “unsatisfactory” and “not technically credible.” In the vernacular, “not technically credible” means their explanations are lies.
Separately, in March, the IAEA notified the Board that Iran had refused since January to grant required IAEA access to two locations where the Agency is investigating the possible use or storage of nuclear material. At one location, the Agency’s questions involve indications of possible processing of uranium relevant to an enrichment plant of the type Iran built originally in secret at Natanz. At the second location, evidence of past preparation for the use of specialized equipment has led the IAEA to raise questions about “the possible use and storage of nuclear material.” The question remains: was nuclear material there in the past, and if so, where is it today?
These issues, in combination with past high explosives testing at the site, raise deeply worrying questions about possible nuclear weapons-related work at the location in the past and possible nuclear material that may remain undeclared to this day. The Director General noted indications of activities at both locations consistent with sanitization. Iran’s extended denial of access to these locations was unprecedented under the Additional Protocol. Ultimately, Iran did not provide access for well over half a year and only then after the Board passed a unanimous resolution in June calling on Iran to provide full cooperation without further delay.
In 2015, President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and Wendy Sherman repeatedly promised the American people and Congress that the inspections regime in the JCPOA would be sufficient – that we could have access to any site when we needed to. Do you remember the claims of “Oh yes, 24/7”? In reality, the inspections regime in the negotiated deal had major shortcomings that allowed Iran to delay access to sites without immediate repercussions. Given Iran’s unprecedented obstruction of the IAEA, there must be consequences built-in to any deal that treats such obstruction with the seriousness it deserves. Unfortunately, the near-religious devotion that some have for the JCPOA have prevented real accountability for these actions. Verification of Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its IAEA safeguards agreements, including its Additional Protocol, is critical — and even more so for a closed country like Iran that regularly jails and even executes journalists. The IAEA is the one reliable mechanism we have to verify and monitor Iran’s nuclear program expertly and independently.
On top of these serious issues, the IAEA also continues to investigate the possible presence of undeclared uranium metal, pictured in records of Iran’s past nuclear weapons program, at yet another undeclared location in Iran between 2002 and 2003, a location that Iran has since heavily sanitized. Even in small quantities, uranium metal can be used in nuclear weapons research and development. Again, it seems that Iran has been unwilling to cooperate with the IAEA to address this concern.
On all of these matters, the key question remains outstanding: if nuclear material was present at some point, where is it today? These are not, as some have claimed, merely historical matters. They are core safeguards concerns regarding potential undeclared nuclear material in Iran today. When coupled with Iran’s apparent determination to maintain the option to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, these blatant refusals to cooperate fully with international inspectors lead to one conclusion: Iran has shown it is not responsible enough to have an enrichment program. With this pattern of deceit, we can never be sure such a program would not be used as the basis of a nuclear weapons program.
Preventing the Option of a Nuclear Weapons “Sprint” – Second, especially under these circumstances, it is vital to prevent the Iranian regime from positioning itself for a “sprint” to a weapon – first by accumulating enriched uranium and then later in a possible “breakout” to nuclear weapons. An Iran with a significant capacity to enrich uranium, and with a large stockpile of enriched material, is an Iran well-positioned to try finally to rush across the goal line to nuclear weapons.
This point is critical for understanding the way ahead, and why we must not legitimize such a buildup of capabilities and material. It is also critical to understanding the degree to which we have remained in fundamental agreement with our European partners and other responsible states regarding the underlying threat of Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran were to build up the dangerous enrichment capabilities that Supreme Leader Khamenei has outlined or that are included in the law recently approved by Iran’s Majles and Guardian Council, it would be a severe threat to international security and regional stability.
The United States and our international partners strongly agree on this point. We’ve seen over the last year and a half how the regime has used its enrichment levels and stockpiling to try to extort the international community into providing it sanctions relief. That is precisely why there must not be a legitimization of any nuclear enrichment by Iran, a massive flaw of the JCPOA. And so it is critical that any new deal prevent Iran from having the ability to continue uranium enrichment or stockpile enriched material.
This should remain a key goal of our diplomacy in the months and years ahead. Whether one loves the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or hates it will soon be irrelevant. The major nuclear restrictions under the JCPOA begin expiring in five short years, and without a new deal, Tehran will have no obstacle to acquiring capabilities that all responsible states agree the regime must not obtain. We cannot afford another resigned approach to further sunsets of restrictions under the JCPOA, similar to the Security Council’s approach to the conventional arms embargo under UN Security Council resolution 2231. And simply re-entering the JCPOA without extending the duration of its key restrictions is pure folly. Whatever one thinks of the Obama Administration’s deal, it is time for all countries to work together to persuade, or force, Iran to accept new and enduring limits on its nuclear program.
How? To reach such a deal, the international community must continue imposing powerful sanctions on the regime while offering it the prospect of significant relief. Sanctions are a critical tool in addressing Iran’s malign behavior that should not be set aside until we have agreed terms that permanently end Iran’s proliferation threat and address its broader destabilizing conduct.
Beware Iranian Bargaining – The third point is that the Iranians are very practiced at coercive bargaining and nuclear extortion. While we continue to pursue a new and better deal, we need to remain wary of falling into negotiating traps, and should refuse premature concessions before an effective deal is negotiated. Some observers are already convinced that only significant concessions to Tehran – up front – can get it to back down and return to the negotiating table. This is exactly what the regime wants us to think, of course, so we should avoid the trap. They would not be talking so much about negotiations unless they were desperate for sanctions relief. They only came to the table last time because of sanctions, and that’s the only reason they will come back now. Only this time, our sanctions are far stronger, and now their defense budget for the coming year is down 24% in comparison to this year. They are in dire straits.
We should also remember that Iran fears a united response from the P5+1 and has walked a careful line until now: exceeding JCPOA limits just enough to generate alarm, but not pushing forward so dangerously as to drive the Europeans (and the Russians and Chinese) to join the U.S. pressure campaign. We still have great leverage to influence Iran’s actions.
In standing firm against Tehran’s negotiating game, we should take heart that when it comes to Iran’s compliance with its IAEA safeguards obligations, recent months have shown that a strong stand can elicit Iranian cooperation, no matter how begrudging. We must continue our strong support for the IAEA’s exercise of its full authorities in Iran, and in ensuring that all safeguards problems are promptly reported to the Board of Governors. In particular, Iran’s endless delay and dishonesty over evidence from a site that Iran had not declared to the IAEA is unacceptable. The recent success of U.S. diplomacy at the Board, in pressing Iran to grant the required access to IAEA inspectors, shows that when nations act together, we can rein in Iranian misconduct.
For all these reasons, when it comes to putting permanent limits on Iran’s key nuclear capabilities, we should remember that it is Tehran that has the weaker negotiating position – and the regime knows it. We should not throw away our advantage. We must not let Iran’s efforts at nuclear extortion work. And we must keep Iran from building up enrichment capabilities in any legitimized fashion. To do so, we should continue to combine sanctions pressures with the availability of real relief for Iran, provided that the regime accepts enduring limits on its nuclear program through a comprehensive deal.
The United States and our international partners share a strategic interest in such a new deal. That is why it is vital that during negotiations we work and consult closely especially with Israel and our Arab partners, who continue to be in the regime’s crosshairs.
Just as critical to the success of any arrangement is congressional support, which the Trump Administration pledged to obtain. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2015, requires any “agreement,” regardless of the form it takes, to be submitted to Congress for review. Any agreement, or any attempt to return to the JCPOA, that circumvents Congress would be doomed to fail yet again. Success in preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon is something we should all wish for, and something we must all continue working together to achieve. But I repeat: we have the upper hand; the regime is under huge pressure; we have great leverage; let us use it rather than discard it at this critical juncture. Thank you.
The Maximum Pressure campaign against the Iranian regime continues to be extraordinarily effective. Today, Iran’s economy faces a currency crisis, mounting public debt, and rising inflation. Prior to the Maximum Pressure campaign, Iran was exporting nearly 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. Now it struggles to export even a quarter of that volume. Since May 2018, we have denied the regime of direct access to more than $70 billion in oil revenue, and will continue to prevent the regime access to around $50 billion annually. The Iranian rial has depreciated to one fifth of its former value against the dollar since the start of the campaign, while Iran’s GDP has shrunk by around 6% for three consecutive years.
Sanctioning Iranian Intelligence Officers Involved in the Abduction of Bob Levinson, December 14.
For 13 years, the Iranian regime has denied knowledge of Robert A. “Bob” Levinson’s whereabouts or condition. However, senior Iranian officials authorized Levinson’s abduction and detention and launched a disinformation campaign to deflect blame from the regime.
Today, the United States is designating two senior officials of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), who were involved in the abduction of Mr. Levinson on Iran’s Kish Island on or about March 9, 2007. Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, acting in their capacity as MOIS officers, were involved in the abduction, detention, and probable death of Mr. Levinson. They are designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13553 for acting for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Iran’s MOIS. The MOIS was previously designated pursuant to E.O. 13553 for being complicit in the commission of serious human rights abuses against Iranians protesting fraudulent elections held on June 12, 2009.
The Iranian regime has a 41-year history of abducting and detaining foreigners and dual-nationals as political leverage. We reiterate our strong warning to U.S. citizens and dual-nationals that traveling to Iran may jeopardize their personal safety. The abduction, detention, and probable death of Mr. Levinson is another egregious example of the regime’s callous disregard toward human life.
The United States will always prioritize the safety and security of the American people and will continue to aggressively pursue those who played a role in Mr. Levinson’s disappearance. We call on the Iranian regime to provide a full accounting of Mr. Levinson’s fate, and we will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained by Iran are back home. We hope today brings the Levinson family some of the answers and justice they deserve.
For more information about today’s action, please see the Department of the Treasury’s press release.
Iran’s Efforts at Intimidation Must Not Be Rewarded, December 11.
The United States condemns the law recently approved by Iran’s Majles and Guardian Council, which is nothing more than the regime’s latest ploy to use its nuclear program to try to intimidate the international community. If implemented, this law would result in Iran enriching uranium to the dangerous 20% level, while Iran is already exceeding the JCPOA’s limits on enrichment levels – as well as expanding its uranium stockpile and researching, producing, and installing advanced centrifuges. Iran has provided no credible technical rationale for why it needs to move precipitously to enrich uranium to that level for any peaceful purpose.
The law would also obligate the Iranian government to reduce its already unacceptable levels of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran has for nearly two years stonewalled IAEA efforts to resolve questions about possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities in Iran, leading the IAEA Board to demand in June 2020 that Iran fully implement its Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement and obligations under the Additional Protocol. A reduction in Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA or enrichment to the 20% level would constitute a serious escalation that moves Iran closer to the ability to obtain a nuclear weapon.
The international community must not reward the regime’s dangerous gamesmanship with economic appeasement. If the Iranian regime seeks sanctions relief and economic opportunity, then it must first demonstrate that it is serious about fundamentally changing its behavior by ceasing its nuclear extortion and negotiating a comprehensive deal that addresses its development of ballistic missiles and its support for terrorism, unjust detention, and other destabilizing activities in the region. The international community has been clear that Iran must begin to fully cooperate with the IAEA without further delay. Failure to do so should not be met with concessions from the international community, but rather with continued diplomatic and economic pressure and isolation of the Iranian regime.