Nuclear negotiations with Iran assumed a familiar pose in the waning days of December and the first days of 2015. Positive comments by both sides accompanied little progress. In an interview with National Public Radio on December 29, President Barack Obama entreated Iran yet one more time to “get right with the world.” The President said that reaching a nuclear deal – which he described as “possible” – would give Iran “a path to break through” its isolation, while allowing the country “to develop a modest nuclear power program.” In a speech on January 4, President Hassan Rouhani echoed this sentiment and sought support for a nuclear compromise saying “we can’t have sustainable growth while we are isolated” and arguing that “our cause is not linked to a centrifuge.”
Nuclear talks held in mid-December reportedly yielded a document outlining areas of agreement and of disagreement, along with various ways of resolving remaining disagreements. One dispute is over the amount of enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to keep. Iran has over 8,000 kg of low-enriched uranium, theoretically enough to fuel seven nuclear weapons after further enrichment and processing. The proposed solution is to send some amount of this material (along with enriched uranium produced in the future) to Russia. The next round of negotiations will take place next week in Geneva.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department continued to enforce existing sanctions. New measures were announced on December 30 targeting six individuals and three companies. Under Executive Order 13622, aimed at those that provide financial support to the Government of Iran or its Central Bank, Treasury blacklisted Hossein Zeidi, Seyed Kamal Yasini, Azizullah Asadullah Qulandary, Asadollah Seifi, Teymour Ameri, and the Dubai-based Belfast General Trading for helping Iran obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. bank notes. According to Treasury, the individuals helped convert Iranian funds into U.S. dollars and deliver the funds using “couriers to hand carry this money to Tehran.”
In addition, Asia Bank official Anahita Nasirbeik was blacklisted for converting and facilitating “the delivery from Moscow to Tehran of U.S. bank notes valued at more than $10 million to representatives of the Iranian government.” Asia Bank is an Iranian-owned bank based in Moscow that was previously designated by Treasury.
Two Tehran-based technology firms were also added to Treasury’s blacklist on December 30. Douran Software Technologies was designated under Executive Order 13628, which targets censorship, for supporting government efforts to filter web pages and monitor computer activity. Abyssec was designated under Executive Order 13553, which targets human rights abuses, for supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “offensive information operations capabilities.”
Also on December 30, Treasury updated the names and flags of 30 blacklisted vessels affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). The changes suggest that IRISL is no longer easily able to use flags of convenience in order to disguise the origin of its vessels. In all 30 cases, vessels that had been flagged Hong Kong, Bolivia, or Malta, for example, have reverted to Iranian flags. Similarly, the changes to vessel names reported by Treasury suggest that IRISL has given up on using generic vessel names for blacklisted ships in an effort to disguise their origin. For example, vessels named “Begonia” or “Celestina” have been renamed “Neshat” and “Termeh.” IRISL made most of these name and flag changes in 2012, according to the Equasis website, so Treasury is essentially playing catch up.
Sanctions are also headed for debate in the new U. S. Congress, which will be controlled by Republicans. The Senate is expected to take up quickly a bill introduced in 2013 by Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would increase sanctions if Iran walks away from the existing negotiations or fails to abide by the nuclear restrictions of the interim nuclear accord, which has been extended until June. A separate bill would require Congress to approve any final deal before sanctions could be lifted permanently. Both bills have wide support and could pass over White House opposition. Whether they could survive a veto is more doubtful.