What happened: The US has warned Iran that it would face “severe consequences” if it attacked Americans after placing sanctions on US nationals.
- Over the weekend Iran announced sanctions on 51 US nationals, including US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and former national security advisor Robert O’Brien, for their role in the death of Qassem Soleimani on 3 January 2020, as well as for “terrorism” and human rights violations.
- In response, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement: “Make no mistake: the United States of America will protect and defend its citizens. Should Iran attack any of our nationals, including any of the 51 people named yesterday, it will face severe consequences.”
- Sullivan further said that while the US may have disagreements on politics and policy with Iran, “we are united in our resolve against threats and provocations … we are united in the defence of our people”.
- He added the US will work with allies “to deter and respond to any attacks carried out by Iran”.
- Also over the weekend, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron about the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.
- According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the pair spoke about Israel demand to put pressure on Iran, while Macron “reiterated his commitment to the security of Israel and emphasised the importance he places on the warm relationship between Israel and France”.
Context: According to delegates in Vienna, talks between the JCPOA participants and Iran have progressed over the last week.
- The main sticking points over a full return to JCPOA compliance by Iran and the US are returning limits to Iranian uranium enrichment, the lifting of US sanctions, and US guarantees to remain in the deal.
- On returning limits, Iran is required to return to 3.67 per cent enrichment with a limited number of first-generation centrifuges. Currently, it has reached 60 per cent uranium enrichment with hundreds of advanced centrifuges.
- Some countries want Iran to destroy its advanced centrifuges, but Iran prefers to store them away. Another negotiating issue is the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency verifying whether Iran complies with returning to its JCPOA nuclear commitments in an open and transparent manner.
- On sanctions, Iran insists that the US first lifts all sanctions placed under former President Trump before dismantling its nuclear infrastructure, and wants verification that the lifting of sanctions results in greater Western investment in Iran.
- On guarantees, Iran has said it wants the Biden administration to provide a legal guarantee that the US will not pull out of the deal again if it is restored.
- Whilst it is practically impossible for the US to provide such a guarantee, due to a divided Congress over the JCPOA and diplomacy with Iran, negotiators are trying to find ways to solve this issue.
Looking ahead: Talks in Vienna are entering an important stage after the US set the end of January as an unofficial deadline to assess whether Iran is serious about returning to the JCPOA.
- Israel continues to try and influence the potential outcome of negotiations in Vienna through closed door meetings with the US and European allies.
- Foreign Minister Lapid has said that Israel is not opposed to any deal, but believes sanctions must remain on Iran and only a credible military threat will result in an agreement that stop Iran’s nuclear programme.