US, announcing new sanctions, says it hopes Iran comes 'back to negotiating table'

New sanctions on Iranians who have engaged in sensitive defense research are intended to make those individuals “radioactive,” according to a senior US administration official.

al-monitor A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the United States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo.

Mar 22, 2019

WASHINGTON — A senior Trump administration official said today that new US Iran sanctions designations targeting Iranians alleged to have been involved in sensitive defense research are part of a broader pressure campaign it hopes will eventually persuade Iran to come back to the negotiating table.

“For the last few months we have been going to a great deal of trouble to reimpose pressures upon Iran … in order to try to incentivize Iran making the right choice and in coming back to the table to ultimately agree to the kind of enduring and better, more comprehensive settlement,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists on a call hosted by the State and Treasury departments today.

His comments came in a call announcing the designation of 14 Iranian individuals and 17 entities that US officials said were partly identified from the archive of Iranian nuclear weapons research that Israeli intelligence allegedly obtained from Iran last year. Israeli officials have reported that the archive describes research Iran conducted into nuclear weapons prior to 2003-2004, when this research was suspended.

US officials said today that several individuals who had been involved with that shuttered research program continue to do sensitive defense research for Iran’s Organization of Defense Innovation and Research, better known by its Persian acronym SPND, and its subsidiaries. The new sanctions designations are intended in part to make SPND and its researchers “radioactive,” to disincentivize younger Iranian researchers from working for SPND or affiliates, the US officials said.

“In this action, we are designating the technical experts and critical entities linked to Iran’s previous nuclear weapons effort,” a second senior administration official said on the State Department call. “These are entities and people who continue to operate in Iran’s defense sector. … With this action, we’re exposing those people, those entities, and we are making them radioactive internationally.”

US officials say they are concerned that SPND could let defense researchers keep their skills sharp should Iran in the future decide to try to reconstitute its shuttered weapons research program. This is a concern, the US official said, because under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from last year, “sunset” provisions eventually allow Iran to expand its uranium enrichment capacity.

Other provisions of the nuclear accord, however, constrain Iran’s potential “breakout” capabilities, including that Iran can only keep a small portion of its low-enriched nuclear fuel, and Iran remains under the most extensive International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring and inspections regime in the world.

“This particular tranche of sanctions has an additional layer of symbolic importance because it’s not just about putting pressure on Iran to reach a diplomatic, negotiated solution,” the first senior official added. “SPND … is an organization that was set up in effect to keep the personnel and the human capital from the Iranian nuclear weapons program still together and to keep their skills sharp, apparently with some eye to potential future reconstitution.”

“What we’re doing today … is to continue to stigmatize SPND and that reconstitution program-in-waiting that it represents, and try to make it as unattractive as possible to be a part of that organization,” the first official said.

Asked by Al-Monitor if there was any progress in efforts to try to get Iran back to the negotiating table, the first US official said that talking about any such diplomatic overtures, if they exist, would be unhelpful. But he said the administration hopes that it will eventually get to the table with Iran as it has with North Korea.

“I’m not in a position to talk about any particular diplomatic overtures,” the first senior US administration official said. “It tends to make them less useful where they exist, and one wouldn’t want to create false promises or false hopes either if they don’t exist.”

“We have been gradually building an increasing amount of international support for insisting that Iran do make that right choice,” the official continued. “We are certainly not as far along the curve [with Iran] as we are with the North Koreans in terms of the actual engagements. But in some respect we are putting the same kinds of pressures on Iran with the hope of enticing a return to the table. That return to the table is further along in the North Korean context, but we hope that we will be soon working to come up with the kind of negotiated solution that Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo has referred to.”

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