Jan 5, 2022 - World

U.S. sees "snapback" sanctions threat as tool to deter Iran enrichment

Jake Sullivan (R) with Tony Blinken. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Pool via Getty

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told Israeli officials during his recent visit to Jerusalem that the threat of “snapback” UN Security Council sanctions should be used as a means to deter Iran from enriching weapons-grade uranium, three Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the issue told me.

Why it matters: Snapback was the most significant mechanism built into the 2015 deal to punish Iran if it violates the agreement. According to the deal, any party to the agreement can trigger the sanctions.

  • The sanctions would be particularly devastating to Iran's economy because all UN members would be bound to comply.
  • Iran has continued to accelerate its nuclear program while also taking part in nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Israel has warned its Western allies that Tehran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity.

Behind the scenes: Israel has been pushing the U.S. and the E3 — France, Germany and the U.K. — to increase the pressure on Iran now and has raised the possibility of triggering snapback sanctions.

  • Only the U.K. had shown any openness to the snapback idea so far, Israeli officials say.
  • The U.S. has been arguing to the Israelis that pressure needs to be balanced with diplomacy and that Israeli sabotage operations against Iran's nuclear facilities have actually led the Iranians to accelerate their program.

During a Dec. 22 meeting of the U.S.-Israel strategic forum on Iran, Sullivan said he was very concerned that the Iranians felt they were getting closer to the possibility of breaking out toward a nuclear weapon, the Israeli officials say.

  • Sullivan said he didn't know whether additional U.S. pressure or a lack thereof would be more likely to lead Iran to move closer to a bomb, the officials say.
  • But he said the threat of snapback sanctions — in addition to strengthening the credibility of the military threat against Iran — should be used to deter Iran from increasing uranium enrichment to 90% purity.

The other side: Israeli Foreign Ministry officials told Sullivan they think the U.S. and E3 should move ahead with snapback sanctions if the Vienna talks reach a dead end, regardless of Iran's levels of enrichment.

  • But at the end of the meeting, Sullivan's Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, agreed that using snapback as a deterrent against 90% enrichment makes sense.

A senior administration official told Axios the U.S. would not comment on private diplomatic deliberations but said: “The United States and Israel are closely aligned on the security threats posed by Iran. Jake Sullivan’s visit last month confirmed that alignment."

State of play: The eighth round of the nuclear talks resumed in Vienna this week.

  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday there had been “some modest progress” in recent days.

The bottom line: Sullivan said in the U.S.-Israel meeting that if no agreement is reached in Vienna within weeks and the Iranians aren't negotiating in good faith, the U.S. should walk away from the talks, the Israeli officials said.

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