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Iran’s Oil Exports Rise as U.S. Looks to Rejoin Nuclear Accord

But, the official said, the United States has been challenged to enforce the sanctions without reliable help from allies and as traders play a “cat-and-mouse game” to avoid being tracked on the high seas. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity while the Iran talks were continuing.

U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships conducting security patrols in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf have been confronted by Iranian military vessels three times over the past month, heightening tensions that could, if allowed to escalate, threaten the delicate nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Twenty percent of the global oil supply — about 18 million barrels each day — flows through the strait.

Other world powers have been reluctant to enforce sanctions that were imposed, over their objections, when the United States left the nuclear deal in 2018. The most notable example came last fall, when the Trump administration declared it had reimposed international sanctions against Iran that the United Nations Security Council refused to recognize.

The United States has also warned that it could impose what are known as secondary sanctions on foreign buyers of Iran’s oil, which would cut them out of American markets and other transactions that are processed in U.S. dollars. That has spooked international companies that do not want to lose access to American banks and some analysts said that it has hurt relations between the United States and European allies who had hoped the nuclear deal would open new economic markets for their industries in Iran.

“If the United States tries to use sanctions for everything, and tries to tell the rest of the world what it can and can’t do, at some point other countries could well push back and say, ‘We’ve had enough of this,’” said Corinne A. Goldstein, a sanctions expert and senior counsel at the law firm Covington & Burling. “So I think the United States risks losing the power of sanctions by abusing their use.”

Since January, The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has fined companies more than $2.1 million for violating its sanctions against Iran to settle or otherwise resolve yearslong cases, some of which began under President Barack Obama. The Treasury Department resolved about as many violations of Iran sanctions for all of 2020, including a $4.1 million settlement with Berkshire Hathaway after one of its Turkish subsidiaries was accused of selling goods to Iran and then trying to hide the transaction.

Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the drumbeat of sanctions against Iran toward the end of the Trump administration, said the penalties blocked revenues worth tens of billions of dollars to Tehran, limiting how much support Iran could devote to its nuclear and military programs, including its proxy forces across the Middle East.

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U.S. and Iran Want to Restore the Nuclear Deal. They Disagree Deeply on What That Means.

President Biden and Iran’s leaders say they share a common goal: They both want to re-enter the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump scrapped three years ago, restoring the bargain that Iran would keep sharp limits on its production of nuclear fuel in return for a lifting of sanctions that have choked its economy.

But after five weeks of shadow boxing in Vienna hotel rooms — where the two sides pass notes through European intermediaries — it has become clear that the old deal, strictly defined, does not work for either of them anymore, at least in the long run.

The Iranians are demanding that they be allowed to keep the advanced nuclear-fuel production equipment they installed after Mr. Trump abandoned the pact, and integration with the world financial system beyond what they achieved under the 2015 agreement.

The Biden administration, for its part, says that restoring the old deal is just a steppingstone. It must be followed immediately by an agreement on limiting missiles and support of terrorism — and making it impossible for Iran to produce enough fuel for a bomb for decades. The Iranians say no way.

financial restrictions that go beyond that deal — mostly involving conducting transactions with Western banks — because it would create what one senior administration official called a “ripe circumstance for a negotiation on a follow-on agreement.”

The Iranians refuse to even discuss a larger agreement. And American officials say it is not yet clear that Iran really wants to restore the old deal, which is derided by powerful hard-liners at home.

campaign of sabotage and assassination to cripple the Iranian program — and perhaps the negotiations themselves. So it was notable that the director of the Mossad, who has led those operations, was recently ushered into the White House for a meeting with the president. After an explosion at the Natanz nuclear plant last month, Mr. Biden told aides that the timing — just as the United States was beginning to make progress on restoring the accord — was suspicious.

The split with Israel remains. In the meetings in Washington last week — which included Mr. Blinken; the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns; and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan — Israeli officials argued that the United States was naïve to return to the old accord, which they think preserved a nascent nuclear breakout capability.

Mr. Biden’s top aides argued that three years of “maximum pressure” on Iran engineered by Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had failed to break its government or limit its support of terrorism. In fact, it had prompted nuclear breakout.

told the BBC.

Iran wants more sanctions lifted than the United States judges consistent with the deal, while insisting on keeping more of its nuclear infrastructure — in particular advanced centrifuges — than that deal permits. Instead, Iran argues that the International Atomic Energy Agency should simply inspect the new centrifuges, a position that is unacceptable to Washington.

While the talks continue, Iran is keeping up the pressure by adding to its stockpile of highly enriched uranium and the equipment to make it, all in violation of the deal.

Both Iran and the United States are working under delicate political constraints. Even as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has supported the Vienna talks, Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif are mocked by powerful conservatives who do not trust Washington and who expect to capture the presidency.

For his part, Mr. Biden must contend with a Congress that is highly skeptical of a deal and largely sympathetic to the concerns of Israel.

increasing enrichment to just short of bomb grade in small quantities and barring international inspectors from key sites in late February — Mr. Zarif insists that these moves are easily reversible.

American intelligence officials say that while Iran has bolstered its production of nuclear material — and is probably only months from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one or two bombs — even now, there is no evidence Iran is advancing on its work to fashion a warhead. “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in a report last month.

scandal over Mr. Zarif, whose criticism of internal decision-making recently leaked, apparently in an effort to damage his reputation and any chance he had to run for the presidency.

Ayatollah Khamenei refuted the criticism without naming Mr. Zarif, but he said the comments were “a big mistake that must not be made by an official of the Islamic Republic” and “a repetition of what Iran’s enemies say.”

At the same time, by downplaying Mr. Zarif’s role, the supreme leader reaffirmed his support for the talks while also sheltering them from criticism by hard-liners, said Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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Nuclear Talks With Iran Could Reach Agreement Within Weeks, U.S. Says

WASHINGTON — The United States and Iran could each come back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal within weeks, a senior State Department official said on Thursday, on the eve of what could be a final round of negotiations before an agreement is brokered.

Significant hurdles remain. But the comments were an optimistic signal by the Biden administration that an American return to the accord between Iran and world powers could be within reach.

Briefing journalists on the condition of anonymity, the senior official described the likelihood of an agreement before Iran’s presidential elections in mid-June as both possible and doable. He did not rule out that it could come in the round of talks that begin on Friday in Vienna.

Still, the official cautioned that the United States and Iran continued to diverge on the extent to which each side needed to comply with the original terms of the 2015 deal — namely, unwinding economic sanctions by Washington in exchange for Tehran scaling back its nuclear program.

withdrew from the deal in 2018 to pressure Iran into a broader agreement that would have also limited its missile program and military activities across the Middle East. Later that year, the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s key financial sectors, including its lucrative oil industry, to squeeze its economy and try to force Tehran back to the bargaining table.

Instead, Iran resisted the pressure campaign by accelerating its nuclear program and raising its prospects for building a weapon.

President Biden has pledged to rejoin the nuclear accord — but has also called for negotiating a “longer and stronger” deal afterward to curb Iran’s missile program and its support for proxy forces in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where they threaten U.S. allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As American negotiators have warned in recent weeks that an agreement on reviving the 2015 deal may ultimately be thwarted, Iranian officials have cast the negotiations in a far rosier light.

Iran’s installation of advanced centrifuges last month.

The centrifuges shorten the time needed to enrich uranium, the fuel for nuclear bombs, and Western negotiators have demanded they be destroyed, Iran’s state media reported. Iran, however, wants to maintain the centrifuges, but would allow them to be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

Asked about the centrifuges in his briefing to reporters, the senior State Department official would not directly discuss them, except to suggest that their capabilities for enriching uranium would exceed the terms of the 2015 agreement.

Iranian state media also reported that Tehran’s negotiators want the United States to drop its terrorism designation against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful arm of Iran’s military. American officials have made clear that they do not intend to lift sanctions or address issues in the current nuclear talks that go beyond the limits of the 2015 deal. The terrorism designation was imposed in 2019.

The senior State Department official left open the possibility of an unrelated but parallel deal with Tehran to immediately release four American detainees held in Iran, regardless of the timing of a nuclear agreement. Iranian officials have also been pressing for a prisoner swap of its citizens being held in the United States.

is presumed dead — in describing intense and continuing discussions through intermediaries to free the detainees.

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Iran’s Push to Enrich Uranium Amid Nuclear Talks: What to Know

Iran has started enriching its uranium supply to 60 percent purity — the closest the country has ever come to the level needed for a weapon — in response to the sabotage of an Iranian nuclear site last weekend linked to Israel.

The move by Iran, reported Friday on state media, made good on threats Iranian officials had announced after the sabotage, which have cast a new cloud over talks to save the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear abilities in exchange for sanctions relief.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has gone further, boasting as those talks resumed in Vienna that his scientists could easily enrich uranium to 90 percent purity — weapons-grade fuel — although he insisted, as Iranian leaders have repeatedly, that Iran “is never seeking to make an atomic bomb.”

So what is the significance of uranium’s purity, which is at the heart of the accord that negotiators are trying to rescue? And why is Iran making these claims? Some basic questions and answers:

Uranium contains a rare radioactive isotope, called U-235, that can be used to power nuclear reactors at low enrichment levels and to fuel nuclear bombs at much higher levels. The goal of uranium enrichment is to raise the percentage levels of U-235, which is often done through the use of centrifuges — machines that spin a form of unrefined uranium at high speeds.

becomes far easier and requires fewer centrifuges as it moves into the higher purities. In other words, getting to 90 percent purity is much easier starting from 20 percent, and easier still starting from 60 percent.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear-monitoring arm of the United Nations, Iran as of February had amassed 2,967.8 kilograms of uranium — roughly 14 times the limit under the nuclear accord and theoretically enough to power about three atomic bombs if refined to weapons grade. The stockpile includes 17.6 kilograms enriched to 20 percent — also forbidden under the accord until the year 2030.

Almost certainly yes. While Iranian officials have given conflicting accounts of the extent of centrifuge damage at Natanz, the sabotaged enrichment complex, at least one has said that several thousand of the machines were destroyed. But Iran also possesses a second known enrichment site, an underground facility called Fordow, that houses roughly 1,000 centrifuges, and some were deployed early this year to enrich uranium to 20 percent.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert who is a professor and director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. “It is getting punched left and right, without the ability to do damage to the other side.”

With the 60 percent enrichment, Mr. Boroujerdi said, Iran’s leaders “are trying to resort to any aces they may have.”

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Iran Talks Resume, Gingerly, After Attack on Nuclear Site

BRUSSELS — Iran and the other signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal resumed negotiations in Vienna on Thursday to revive the accord, though the atmosphere was fraught in the aftermath of the apparent Israeli attack on a major uranium enrichment site in Iran.

Senior diplomats involved in the talks have agreed that the working groups meant to bring both Iran and the United States into compliance with the deal had made progress.

But after the meeting on Thursday, the head of China’s delegation, Wang Qun, called for a faster pace and fewer distractions.

“We do think that all these developments have reinforced our conviction that what is needed most now as a top priority is to do away with any disruptive factors and pick up the pace of negotiation here,” said Mr. Wang, China’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

said in a Twitter post that the “general impression is positive.” He said this meeting would be followed “by a number of informal meetings in different formats, including at expert level.”

The talks have been overshadowed in recent days by Iran’s response to an attack at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility on Sunday. Tehran decided to further increase enrichment to 60 percent, a major step toward the 90 percent enrichment that is considered suitable for a nuclear bomb and a flagrant breach of the limits of the 2015 accord. Iran also said it would replace damaged centrifuges at the Natanz facility with more advanced models that were banned under the accord.

The Natanz attack was said to have been carried out by Israel, which has regularly criticized the 2015 deal as weak and unlikely to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have said Israel was responsible for the attack and have denied any American involvement.

The meeting in Vienna involved senior diplomats from Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia under the chairmanship of the European Union. Senior American officials are in a nearby hotel, because President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018.

The three European nations, joined by the United States, have sharply criticized Iran’s moves in recent days, calling them “provocative” and “particularly regrettable” in the face of progress at the Vienna meetings.

“Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions,” they noted in a statement, adding that Iran’s enrichment decision was “a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, criticized Iran’s intentions. “I have to tell you, this step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks, just as it underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance” with the nuclear deal.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely civilian.

The talks are designed to bring the United States back into compliance with the 2015 deal by negotiating what economic sanctions should be lifted. A second working group is focusing on how to bring Iran back into compliance, which Iran has deliberately broken as a “remedial” measure since the economic benefits of the accord have been denied it.

Those talks are said to have been positive so far, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was dismissive of them in comments made on Wednesday marking the first day of Ramadan in Iran. He said it was “not worth looking at” initial offers for the lifting of sanctions, saying that “the offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating.”

He also warned that time could be running out. “The talks shouldn’t become talks of attrition,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “They shouldn’t be in a way that parties drag on and prolong the talks. This is harmful to the country.”

He also said that Iran was prepared to return quickly to compliance if agreement could be found in Vienna and again denied that Iran would ever build nuclear weapons.

The leader of the Iranian delegation, Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister, has been busy in Vienna holding bilateral talks in the last few days, rejecting speculation that Iran might withdraw from the negotiations. The impression among other diplomats involved is that Iran is committed to a deal, as is the United States.

How to get there and how to synchronize the moves of both sides in an atmosphere of mistrust is the task of the Vienna meetings. Whether that succeeds, or how long it will take, is unclear. But both Iran and the United States have said that they want a successful conclusion.

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Iran’s Top Leader Signals Nuclear Talks to Resume Despite Natanz Sabotage

Iran’s top leader said Wednesday that his country would keep negotiating with world powers over how to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, quashing speculation that Iran’s delegation would boycott or quit participating in protest of the apparent Israeli sabotage of a major uranium enrichment site this past weekend.

The declaration by the top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on security matters in the country of 80 million, came three days after an explosive blast at the Natanz enrichment site plunged the heavily guarded facility into a blackout and disabled or destroyed hundreds of underground centrifuges used to process uranium into fuel.

Suspicion for the destruction immediately fell on Israel, which has sabotaged the Natanz site before. Israel neither confirmed nor denied the accusation but intelligence officials said it was a clandestine Israeli operation.

Outraged and embarrassed over such a security lapse, Iran vowed on Tuesday to triple its uranium enrichment purity — the most brazen departure yet from its commitments under the nuclear deal.

also said they would resume, at 12:30 p.m. local time on Thursday.

The discussions, which began early this month and recessed last Friday, are intended to map out a plan for the return of both Iran and the United States to compliance with the deal, which has teetered on collapse since President Donald J. Trump abruptly withdrew the United States from it three years ago.

Twitter that process could begin soon.

Iran has said that all of its departures from compliance with the nuclear agreement could be easily and quickly reversed when the United States rescinds its sanctions.

carried out a series of raids and attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists and its uranium enrichment facilities.

Although American and Israeli governments have collaborated before to counter what they see as Iran’s militaristic nuclear ambitions, Washington denied any role in Sunday’s blackout. The Biden administration has said it remains committed to reviving the nuclear agreement.

Iran and the United States have not been negotiating directly in the talks in Vienna, which are led by the European Union. Instead the other participants in the 2015 accord — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — are acting as intermediaries.

Before the blackout at Natanz, European officials maintained that both Iran and the United States were invested in the success of the talks.

The foreign ministries of Germany, France and Britain issued a joint a statement on Wednesday condemning Iran’s uranium enrichment intentions and said that they “reject all escalatory measures by any actor.”

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the statement read. “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

The talks adjourned on a positive note last week. They were scheduled to continue this week after all parties agreed to move forward.

according to senior diplomats who were involved. Two working groups were formed to discuss sanctions and uranium enrichment, both tasked with mapping out a plan to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Steven Erlanger and Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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Iran Vows to Increase Uranium Enrichment After Attack on Nuclear Site

Iran said Tuesday that it would begin enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent purity, three times the current level and much closer to that needed to make a bomb, though American officials doubt the country has the ability to produce a weapon in the near future.

Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, did not give a reason for the shift, but it appeared to be retaliation for an Israeli attack on Iran’s primary nuclear fuel production plant as well as a move to strengthen Iran’s hand in nuclear talks in Vienna.

Mr. Araghchi said that Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of its decision in a letter on Tuesday.

Iran also attacked an Israeli-owned cargo ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, officials said, the latest clash in its maritime shadow war with Israel. The attack was another sign of increased tensions in the region but was reported to have caused little to no damage.

threat assessment report released on Tuesday.

The report said, however, that “if Tehran does not receive sanctions relief” — as Iran has demanded — “Iranian officials probably will consider options ranging from further enriching uranium up to 60 percent to designing and building a new” nuclear reactor that could, over the long term, produce bomb-grade material. That would take years.

The assessment would seem to give President Biden some breathing room as he enters negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring some form of the nuclear agreement.

the attack on Sunday at the nuclear fuel-production center at Natanz, where an explosion knocked the facility offline. He said that Iran would install an additional 1,000 centrifuges there to increase the plant’s capacity by 50 percent.

An Iranian official also provided a new estimate of the damage caused by the attack, saying that several thousand centrifuges were “completely destroyed.” That level of destruction takes out a large portion of Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.

But the full extent of the damage is unknown, and Iran presumably is vulnerable to continued attacks on its nuclear infrastructure. Until the electric power systems are rebuilt at Natanz, it would be impossible to make new centrifuges spin.

Iran is expected to replace the first-generation centrifuges damaged in the Israeli attack with more advanced, more efficient models.

uses about 1,000 centrifuges.

To raise the level to 60 percent purity, Iran would have to turn over roughly half of those machines onto the new enrichment job. Purifying it to 90 percent would require another hundred or so machines.

apparent mine attack by Israel on an Iranian military vessel in the Red Sea, the American official said.

A cargo ship owned by the same company, the Helios Ray, was attacked by Iran earlier this year.

Iranian officials also revealed more details about the Natanz attack on Tuesday, suggesting that the damage was greater than Iran previously reported.

Alireza Zakani, a member of Parliament and head of its research center, said on state television that “several thousand of our centrifuges have been completely destroyed,” representing a large portion of the country’s ability to enrich uranium.

He described official statements on Monday that the facility would be quickly repaired as false promises.

Foreign intelligence officials have said it could take many months for Iran to undo the damage.

Iranian officials have been livid about the security lapses that have allowed a series of attacks on Iran’s nuclear program over the past year, ranging from sabotage of nuclear facilities to the theft of classified documents to the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist. Most of these attacks were presumed to have been carried out by Israel.

Mr. Zakani criticized Iran’s security apparatus as lax, saying it had allowed spies to “roam free,” turning Iran into “a haven for spies.”

He said that in one incident, some nuclear equipment belonging to a major facility was sent abroad for repair and that when it returned the equipment was packed with 300 pounds of explosives. In another incident, he said, explosives were placed in a desk and smuggled inside the nuclear facility.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at energy development. Israel claims that Iran had and may still have an active nuclear weapons program and considers the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat.

The nuclear talks that began in Vienna last week have been delayed because a member of the European Union delegation tested positive for the coronavirus. The talks could resume as early as Thursday if the member tests negative.

Patrick Kingsley, Ronen Bergman and Steven Erlanger contributed reporting.

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