U.S. softens position on Iranian sanctions threat, opting to impose them only at 90% enrichment

The threat of snapback sanctions against Iran formerly existed should Iran step away in any capacity from the JCPOA
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Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, November 10, 2019
(ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States reportedly wants to apply "snapback sanctions" to deter Iran from continuing to enrich weapons-grade-uranium, a strategy that was part of the original JCPOA established in 2015.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told Israelis this week that the Biden administration is looking at the sanctions as a way to stop Iran from enriching uranium to 90% purity, a softer stance than has previously been taken by the administration.

When the the Iran and five other countries including the U.S. agreed in 2015 to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United Nations Security Council simultaneously passed the so-called snapback resolution, created to trigger sanctions if Iran violated the agreement in any way.

The agreement limited Iran's uranium enrichment to 5%, in expected pursuit of a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. In the past year, Tehran has enriched its weapons-grade-uranium to 60%, which worries many of the country's neighbors, including Israel.

Former President Donald Trump exited the JCPOA in 2018, though his administration requested the U.N. security council impose snapback sanctions in 2020 following a series of reports of nuclear misbehavior out of Iran.

The council decided that, because the U.S. had left the agreement, the sanctions would not be applied.

Last year, when discussed by the Biden administration, snapback sanctions were in the conversation as a method by which to encourage Iran to agree to a "longer and stronger" version of the JCPOA. They were again brought up as a potential punishment for negotiations with Iran failing. The U.S. has been in talks, in Vienna, with Iran since early 2021 in effort to get the economically struggling county to reenter some version of the JCPOA. 

Now, U.S. officials are making clear to their Iranian counterparts that the stalled negotiations cannot go on indefinitely.

"What is clear is that if we do not soon reach an understanding on a mutual return to compliance, Iran's accelerating nuclear steps will increasingly diminish the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA," State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this week.

It was reported that a some progress had been made during discussions in Vienna this week. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid about where discussions stand with Iran and the "regional and global challenges, and the importance of putting pressure on Iran to stop its race to a nuclear weapon"

"Secretary Blinken reiterated the U.S. administration’s commitment to Israel’s security," Lapid tweeted.