US said to weigh removal of sanctions on Iran’s Khamenei amid nuclear talks

Report says move was brought up during indirect Vienna negotiations, as part of American compromises to get Iran to return to the 2015 deal

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a video conference with a group of university students, in Tehran, Iran, on May 11, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a video conference with a group of university students, in Tehran, Iran, on May 11, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The United States is considering lifting sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in an attempt to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, sources familiar with the matter told NBC News on Saturday.

The sources said that the move was brought up during indirect nuclear talks between the US and Iran in Vienna, as part of a series of potential compromises by Washington to get Tehran to return to the 2015 deal with full compliance.

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff said the US would lift some 1,040 sanctions implemented during the Trump era on vital Iranian economy sectors such as oil and shipping, as well as remove several senior officials from its blacklists.

Officials who would have sanctions removed included several figures from Khamenei’s inner circle, he said.

There was no official announcement on either report from the US.

The 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear activities, in return for an easing of sanctions.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Abbas Araghchi and Deputy Secretary General and Political Director of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora stand in front of the Grand Hotel Vienna’ where where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

But in 2018, then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement and ramped up sanctions, prompting Iran to increasingly pull back from its own commitments.

Trump’s successor Joe Biden has signaled his readiness to return to the deal, and state parties — including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have been negotiating its potential revival in Vienna since early April.

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric seen as close to Khamenei, said on Monday he would not allow the nuclear negotiations to drag on.

Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to win Iran’s presidential elections, waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

A day earlier, European Union negotiator Enrique Mora said that those involved in the talks were “closer” to saving the Iran nuclear deal, but that sticking points remain.

Iran’s envoy to the Vienna talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, said that “at this point, it is clear which fields, which actions, are possible and which are not. Therefore, it is time for all sides, especially our counterparts, to be able to make their final decision.”

Araghchi added that “bridging the gaps requires decisions that mainly [the US] has to take. I hope in the next round we will travel this short distance — although it is a difficult one.”

Israel has always opposed the nuclear agreement, which it says could enable the Islamic Republic to develop nuclear arms.

A change in Israel’s government just over a week ago — which saw long-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ousted from office — has not changed the country’s policy on the matter. In a speech just before being sworn in as premier, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressed staunch opposition to an American return to the deal.

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