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Nuclear Talks

Iran's Stockpile Of Enriched Uranium Continues To Increase, Says UN Nuclear Watchdog

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi (left) holds a news conference in Tehran with Iran's nuclear energy chief, Mohammad Eslami, on May 7.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi (left) holds a news conference in Tehran with Iran's nuclear energy chief, Mohammad Eslami, on May 7.

Iran has further increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade levels, according to a confidential May 27 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity is now 142.1 kilograms -- an increase of 20.6 kilograms since the watchdog's last report in February. The IAEA also said that the deaths of Iran's president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash on May 19 have forced a pause in the UN nuclear watchdog's talks with Tehran over improving cooperation.

EU Urges Iran To 'Reverse Nuclear Trajectory' As Tehran Threatens To Cross Threshold

 The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (left) meets Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran in June 2022.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (left) meets Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran in June 2022.

The European Union has joined the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in urging Iran to abandon suggestions that it might develop nuclear weapons.

"We continue to call Iran to reverse its nuclear trajectory and show concrete steps, such as urgently improve cooperation with the IAEA," EU spokesman Peter Stano told RFE/RL in written comments on May 16.

The Islamic republic has long claimed that its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes, but a growing number of officials in recent weeks have openly suggested that Iran might review its nuclear doctrine if it deems it necessary.

A landmark deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and world powers in 2015 restricted Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions.

However, Iran expanded its program and restricted IAEA inspections of its nuclear sites after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United Staes from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018.

The EU, which is the coordinator of the JCPOA's Joint Commission, mediated several rounds of indirect talks between Tehran and Washington from 2021 to 2022.

The 27-member bloc presented a final draft of an agreement to revive the deal in August 2022, but talks broke down soon after as Tehran and Washington accused each other of making excessive demands.

"Our goal has always been to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, through a diplomatic solution," Stano said, adding that the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and his team continue efforts to revive the Iran deal.

Iran has particularly upped the rhetoric since last month, when it launched an unprecedented missile and drone attack against its archfoe Israel in response to a deadly air strike on its embassy compound in Syria that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

An IRGC general at the time warned that an attack on Iran's nuclear sites could lead to a rethinking of its policy on nuclear weapons.

Kamal Kharazi, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a former foreign minister, repeated the threat earlier this week.

"We do not want nuclear weapons and the supreme leader's fatwa is to that effect. But if the enemy threatens you, what do you do?" he said.

The fatwa refers to a religious decree by Khamenei in which he said the Islamic republic considers the use of nuclear weapons to be "haram" and Iran would not pursue one.

The fatwa has long been cited by the Iranian authorities as evidence that Iran would never weaponize its nuclear program. Experts, however, question how effective of a barrier the fatwa really is.

Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate Institute, said, "The nuclear fatwa does not pose an insurmountable religious or legal obstacle inside Iran for the system there to pursue nuclear weapons or potentially build them."

Despite the public comments by Iranian officials, the Foreign Ministry has insisted that there has been no change in the country's nuclear doctrine.

Stano said that it "is imperative to show utmost restraint" given the heightened tensions in the Middle East.

"Further escalation in the region -- also in the form of statements about the nuclear posture, even if not reflecting the official position of the country -- is in no one's interest," he added.

In response to in Iran's new rhetoric, the United States has said it "will not allow" Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Separately, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi has called on Iran to "stop" suggestions that it might review its nuclear posture.

Going Nuclear: Iran's New Rhetorical Deterrence

Western states worry that Iranian satellite carriers can be designed to deliver nuclear warheads. (file photo)
Western states worry that Iranian satellite carriers can be designed to deliver nuclear warheads. (file photo)

Acquiring nuclear weapons has long been a taboo topic in Iran, where the country's supreme leader has declared them un-Islamic.

But a growing number of Iranian officials in recent weeks have openly suggested that the Islamic republic could weaponize its nuclear program, which Tehran has long claimed is strictly for civilian purposes.

The change in rhetoric has coincided with Tehran's growing hostilities with Israel. Last month, Israel launched an attack on Iran in response to Tehran's unprecedented missile and drone assault on its archfoe.

Experts say Iran's growing threats to build nuclear weapons is worrying, although they maintain that the statements are likely geared toward deterring another attack on Iranian soil.

Eric Brewer, deputy vice president of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the Iranian threats appeared to be "conditional."

"I do think that if Israel or the United States carried out an attack on Iran's nuclear program, there is a very good chance that Tehran would in fact decide to build nuclear weapons," he said.

Real Or Rhetoric?

Kamal Kharazi, a former foreign minister and current adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned on May 13 that if Israel threatens Iran, "we might review our nuclear doctrine."

"We do not want nuclear weapons and the supreme leader's fatwa is to that effect. But if the enemy threatens you, what do you do?" he said.

Days earlier, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Kharazi said Iran "has the capacity to produce a bomb," though the country had not taken the actual step of making one.

Just before Israel's April 19 strike on Iran, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps warned that an attack that targeted Iranian nuclear facilities would prompt a reciprocal attack on Israel and could lead to a rethinking of Iran's stance on nuclear weapons.

Brewer said what lent the threats "a degree of credibility" is that Iran's nuclear program is far more advanced today than it was in the past.

A landmark deal with world powers in 2015 restricted Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement and reimposed sanctions in 2018, leading Tehran to accelerate its uranium enrichment and limit international inspections of its nuclear sites.

Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate Institute, says failed international efforts to revive the nuclear accord could be behind Tehran's recent threats to build nuclear weapons.

Another reason, he said, could be to “deter the current or a future U.S. administration from undertaking another ‘maximum pressure’-style economic and military campaign against Iran.”

Fatwa Not An Obstacle

In 2010, Khamenei issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying that Iran considers the use of nuclear weapons to be "haram" and that the country would not pursue one.

The fatwa has been cited as evidence by Iranian officials that the Islamic republic does not seek nuclear weapons.

But Brewer said Khamenei's fatwa was "not a meaningful barrier to Iran building the bomb."

"Iran could in theory do most of the work on a weapon with the fatwa in place and then Khamenei could rescind it at the last minute," he added.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) visits an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements at his office compound in Tehran in June 2023.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) visits an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements at his office compound in Tehran in June 2023.

Despite the public comments by Iranian officials, the Foreign Ministry has insisted that there has been no change in the country's nuclear doctrine.

Sabet said this dual messaging could "reflect a debate inside the system in Iran, in which the balance of power or consensus until recently did not favor building and deploying nuclear weapons, but which may be shifting."

Some Iranian media reports have said that the country has enough enriched uranium to produce 10 nuclear bombs.

Brewer says U.S. estimates suggest that it would take Iran about two weeks to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb. But he says manufacturing a deliverable nuclear device could take months, or even more than a year.

Senior Iranian Official Threatens Change In Nuclear Doctrine

Iran's Isfahan nuclear facility (file photo)
Iran's Isfahan nuclear facility (file photo)

A senior Iranian official has issued a stark warning that Tehran might change its nuclear doctrine and begin to build nuclear bombs if the nation's existence is threatened.

Kamal Kharrazi, head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an interview aired on Al-Jazeera Arabic that Iran "has the capacity to produce a bomb," though the country has not taken the actual step of making one.

"Two years ago in an interview with Al-Jazeera, I announced that Iran has the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb. That capacity still exists today, but we have no intention of producing a nuclear bomb. However, if the existence of Iran is threatened, we will have to change our nuclear doctrine," he said.

The comments come at a time of escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, further complicated by the international community's concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Islamic republic has repeatedly claimed that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, despite possessing the technical capabilities for weaponization.

A nuclear deal in 2015 lifted U.S. sanctions against Tehran, but in 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump left the agreement and Washington has since ratcheted up measures against Iran that have choked the country's economy.

Efforts to revive the deal have failed, and Tehran has violated terms of the pact by producing uranium with a higher enrichment threshold.

In March, Bloomberg News quoted a senior U.S. Defense Department official as saying Iran was less than 12 days away from obtaining the fissile material necessary to produce an atomic bomb.

The threat of a shift in doctrine follows an incident last month when Israel is said to have targeted a radar system at a base near the city of Isfahan.

The attack followed an incident on April 13, when Iran retaliated against an Israeli attack on its consulate in Damascus that claimed the lives of seven senior officers from the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Iran launched hundreds of drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles at Israel, though almost all failed to hit targets inside Israel.

After Khamenei issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against nuclear weapons in 2005, officials were adamant that Tehran’s nuclear program was strictly for civilian purposes. But the rhetoric has shifted in recent years.

In the interview, Kharrazi also made reference to potential reactions to any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

"If they want to strike at Iran's nuclear capabilities, it could naturally lead to a change in Iran's nuclear doctrine," he said.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned earlier this month that Iran is only weeks away from having enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb. Grossi has criticized Tehran’s cooperation with the agency as "unacceptable" and called for a significant shift in Iran's nuclear policy.

Kharrazi also hinted at the possibility of Iran withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and potentially moving toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran had previously warned it would leave the NPT if its regime felt threatened.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

IAEA Chief Says Cooperation From Iran 'Completely Unsatisfactory'

 "We are almost at an impasse," IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said following his trip to Iran.
"We are almost at an impasse," IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said following his trip to Iran.

UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi said on May 7 that cooperation from Iran at present was "completely unsatisfactory" after returning from Tehran, where he urged the country to adopt "concrete" measures to address concerns on its nuclear program. "We have to be moving on.... The present state is completely unsatisfactory for me. We are almost at an impasse...and this needs to be changed," the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told reporters at the Vienna airport.

IAEA Chief In Iran As Concern Grows Over Nuclear Activity

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi (file photo)
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi (file photo)

UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi arrived in Iran on May 6, where he is expected to speak at a conference and meet officials for talks on Tehran's nuclear program. The visit comes at a time of heightened regional tensions and with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticizing Iran for lack of cooperation on inspections and other outstanding issues. Grossi is scheduled to meet Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, as well as the Islamic republic's nuclear chief, Mohammad Eslami.

Iran Says UN Nuclear Watchdog Chief Will Visit Tehran

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi (center) looks on during a news conference with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, as they meet in Tehran in March 2022.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi (center) looks on during a news conference with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, as they meet in Tehran in March 2022.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, will shortly be travelling to Tehran to resume nuclear talks with the Iranian side, a top Iranian official said on April 17. "We have good cooperation with the IAEA and the IAEA chief will also come to Tehran soon to continue the bilateral talks and update them, so to speak," Iran's nuclear boss, Mohammad Eslami, said, according to the Iranian news agency IRNA. Grossi said in an interview with CNN on April 16 that he was "considering" visiting Tehran.

Head Of UN Nuclear Watchdog Says Iran Is 'Not Entirely Transparent' About Its Atomic Program

Rafael Grossi is the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. (file photo)
Rafael Grossi is the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. (file photo)

The head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog warned on February 13 that Iran is “not entirely transparent” regarding its atomic program, particularly after an official who once led Tehran's program announced that the Islamic Republic has all the pieces for a weapon “in our hands.” Speaking at the World Governments Summit in Dubai, just across the Persian Gulf, Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, alluded to remarks made this weekend by Ali Akbar Salehi. Since the collapse of a 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers, Iran has pursued nuclear enrichment just below weapons-grade levels.

Iran Announces Successful Launch Of Three Satellites

The launch also saw the successful use of Iran's Simorgh rocket, which has had multiple failures in the past.
The launch also saw the successful use of Iran's Simorgh rocket, which has had multiple failures in the past.

Iran announced on January 28 that it successfully launched three satellites into space, the latest for a program that the West says improves Tehran's ballistic missiles. The state-run IRNA news agency said the launch also saw the successful use of Iran's Simorgh rocket, which has had multiple failures in the past. State TV named the launched satellites as Mahda, Kayhan-2, and Hatef-1. It described the Mahda as a research satellite, while the Kayhan and the Hatef were nanosatellites focused on global positioning and communication, respectively. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

France, Germany, U.K., U.S., Condemn Iran's Increase In Uranium Enrichment

Various centrifuge machines line a hallway at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility.
Various centrifuge machines line a hallway at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

France, Germany, Britain, and the United States on December 28 condemned Iran's increase in production of highly enriched uranium following an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report earlier this week. "We urge Iran to immediately reverse these steps and de-escalate its nuclear program," the countries said in a joint statement. "We remain committed to a diplomatic solution and reaffirm our determination that Iran must never develop a nuclear weapon," they said. The IAEA report said Iran had "increased its production of highly enriched uranium, reversing a previous output reduction from mid-2023." (Reuters)

Iran Rejects IAEA Report On Increased Enriched-Uranium Output

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi (file photo)
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi (file photo)

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization has rejected a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that production of highly enriched uranium has been ramped up sharply. "We are pursuing our current activities within the rules framework," Mohammad Eslami said, the Iran Students' News Agency (ISNA) reported on December 27. IAEA chief Rafael Grossi informed the organization's member states about the increased activity on December 26. An international deal from 2015 limits Iran to only 4 percent enrichment, but Iran began violating the terms in 2018 after the United States pulled out of the deal.

Russia-Israel: With Gaza War, A Complicated Relationship Gets More Complicated

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in January 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in January 2020.

Less than three weeks after Hamas's brutal attack on Israel, leaders of the radical group -- designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU -- showed up in Moscow for talks with Russian officials.

For many in the West, not least in Israel itself, the Hamas delegation's visit was a pointed thumb in the eye of the relatives of the victims, most of them civilians, and of a reeling government. For close watchers of Russian policy, however, it wasn't very surprising, a reflection of Moscow's knotty approach to the messy snarl of Middle East politics.

And then there's Russia's own troubled history with anti-Semitism, which burst into the open on October 29 in the North Caucasus city of Makhachkala, where a violent mob tried to attack an airliner arriving from Tel Aviv, seeking out Jewish passengers.

Never great, the Kremlin's relations with Israel now stand to get even more complicated in the wake of the October 7 attack and the unfolding Israeli ground war in Gaza, where the death toll among Palestinian civilians continues to rise.

It's unlikely that the mob violence at the Makhachkala airport was state orchestrated, says Ian Lesser, executive director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund and an expert on European and Middle Eastern security affairs. "That said, it's clearly showed there's a reservoir of deep ill-will and anti-Semitism in Russia, especially in those regions that are majority Muslim, though not just, and maybe right now Russia finds it convenient to allow a bit of that," he said.

"Anti-Semitism was never gone in Russia," said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute focusing on Russia's policy toward the Middle East. "It always sort of periodically reared its ugly head. It's been buried underneath the surface, but it's not the first time Russia has seen an outburst of anti-Semitic activity, and not just in this region."

Added to the wider context of roiling Middle East, what it means is that Russia's ties with Israel are changing in what may be a dramatic fashion.

"Israel has a complicated relationship with Russia. That's not a secret and it's not new," said Eylon Levy, a spokesman for the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, Israel's divisive and longest-serving prime minister, has cultivated closer ties with Vladimir Putin, Russia's longest-serving president -- and Putin has courted Israel in his efforts to increase Russia's regional clout. In his 2022 memoir, Netanyahu praised Putin's intellect, and thanked him for his policies in support of Jews.

But those relations have been vexed by Moscow's growing economic and military ties with countries like Iran, which has vowed to destroy Israel, and Syria, which is known to harbor and facilitate groups that are hostile to Israel.

In Syria, Russia has a naval port and other military infrastructure that it has used not only to bolster Bashar al-Assad's regime but also to maintain a naval presence in the Mediterranean and badger U.S. forces that are deployed in northeastern Syria, fighting alongside Kurdish militias.

Israel and Russia have managed to avoid conflict even as Israel's air forces have routinely targeted Syrian sites, including Damascus's airport, where weapons shipments and other supplies for the Iranian-backed Hizballah militia have been known to transit.

On October 30, Israeli warplanes bombed a Syrian base in the southern Daraa Province. And days earlier, Israeli jets struck an ammunition depot at another Syrian base, where Hizballah fighters and officers reported to be Iranian were working alongside Syrian troops.

"For many years, Israel had a mechanism of coordinating with the Russian military presence inside Syria as we attack targets inside that country, Iran trying to send advanced weapons to terrorists in the north. And it's important not to get our wires crossed," Levy said.

'On The Israeli Side, I Think This Will Not Go Without Notice'

Moscow's relationship with Tehran is even more problematic to Israel.

Russia has played a key role in helping Iran develop its nuclear capabilities, a lucrative source of revenue for the state-run atomic-energy corporation Rosatom. Both Moscow and Tehran say the efforts have been geared solely at peaceful uses of nuclear power -- electricity generation -- though that hasn't allayed Israel's fear, nor that of some in the United States.

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine, however, fundamentally changed the relationship, the European Council for Foreign Relations said in a report published in September. "The two countries have increased their efforts to jointly resist Western sanctions and political isolation. Iran also continues to expand its nuclear program at alarming levels, with no opposition from Moscow," the report's authors, Ellie Geranmayeh and Nicole Grajewski, wrote.

"Tehran's military contribution to Russia's war effort has made an enormous difference to Russia's ability to persevere in a difficult conflict. Iran, once a secondary player, is now one of Russia's most significant collaborators in the war in Ukraine," they added.

Above all, Russia has leaned heavily on Iran to expand its drone capabilities, now deploying thousands of kamikaze or surveillance drones to target Ukrainian forces, something Ukraine's top commander nodded to in an essay published last week in The Economist.

Unconfirmed Western intelligence reports that Hizballah could receive Russian antiaircraft systems add further fuel to the fire.

None of this has gone unnoticed in Israel.

"Over the last few years, we've been deeply concerned by what Iran has been supplying to Russia, for example, we have evidence that Iranian drones have been used to perpetrate atrocities on the innocent people of Ukraine, and that is a relationship that is clearly of very deep concern to us," Levy told RFE/RL.

Still, Israel has been restrained in its criticism of Russia over the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and has resisted sending weaponry or critical equipment to help Ukrainian forces.

To what extent the Daghestan airport incident reflects broader societal problems or negative attitudes toward Jews is unclear. But there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric from Russian politicians in recent years, including some from Putin himself.

Russian authorities last year moved to shutter the Russian operations of the Jewish Agency, an official Israeli organization that helps Jews in Russia, and around the former Soviet Union, emigrate to the United States.

Some Israelis saw the shutdown as punishment for Israel's stance on the Ukraine war and for criticism by then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

And Then There's Hamas

The Palestinian militant group -- designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union -- has sent several delegations to Moscow over the years, including days after the October 7 attack on Israel as well as before that, in March.

The March meeting, as described in a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, touched on Russia's "unchanged position in support of a just solution to the Palestinian problem."

And Moscow has declined to designate Hamas a terrorist group.

For its part, Israel condemned Moscow for hosting the Hamas delegation and for a separate visit from an Iranian deputy foreign minister.

"The rapprochement with Hamas is consistent with a historical pattern," Milan Czerny and Dan Storyev wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "During the Cold War, Moscow armed and otherwise supported Palestinian militants, including those engaged in terrorism, continuing to do so even at the height of détente."

Still, they said, Russia was unlikely to qualitatively increase its support for Hamas beyond mere rhetoric. "The reality is that, for Moscow, the crisis in the Middle East is an opportunity to pitch itself to the region and the wider Global South as a diplomatic partner," they said.

After Hamas's attack on Israel, Putin used his first public statement on the incident to lace into the United States, blaming Washington and asserting the attack was a "vivid example" of U.S. policy failures in the Middle East.

"I can only imagine that relations with Israel are going to worsen, because...as much as Russia may have had a certain ambiguity, ambivalence in its relationship with Israel in the past, and wish to preserve that relationship for many reasons...the highly symbolic nature of this event, plus this crisis in Gaza, I think it's likely to be seen in Moscow as an opportunity to be exploited," Lesser said.

"On the Israeli side, I think this will not go without notice," he added.

"I think it has not been a cardinal break" in Russian-Israeli relations, Borshchevskaya told RFE/RL. "But there certainly has been a strain with far more intense criticism coming out of the Russian government than in the past, specifically against Israel's military actions in Gaza, and also Israel's air strikes in Syria.

"So what I think what we need to look for is: to what extent, how is Russia going to maintain a semblance of balance between relations with Israel and Hamas?" she said.

The wider question, experts say, is whether Russia will benefit from the turmoil in the Middle East, for example, by drawing attention away from the Kremlin's No. 1 foreign policy priority now: the war in Ukraine.

"The present situation creates challenges for Russia. I agree that there are challenges for Russia as well, but the benefits are greater," Borshchevskaya said. "I think Russia benefits precisely from chaos. And they are going to use the situation of chaos to further escalate with the United States and the West overall, whether directly or through proxies."

"So, I tend to be of a view that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks" for Moscow, she said.

The turmoil is "an unmitigated positive from the point of view of Moscow," Lesser said.

"There are very few negatives as far as Russia is concerned," he said. "Now, obviously, if the conflict were to escalate into a broader war in the Middle East, perhaps involving Iran and the United States, that would begin to raise issues that may be problematic even for Russia."

Iran Has Reasons To Avoid Selling Missiles To Russia After Sanctions Expire

A short-range ballistic missile is test-launched by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
A short-range ballistic missile is test-launched by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

With the expiration of UN sanctions designed to thwart Iran's development of ballistic missiles, both Tehran and ally Russia have said there is nothing standing in the way of them trading such technology.

The claims have led to concerns that Moscow and Tehran could try to expand their existing arms dealing to include more advanced weaponry, know-how, and technology that could boost both Russia's war effort in Ukraine and Iran's ballistic-missile and drone programs.

But while observers do not discount the possibility that Iran could try to sell previously barred weapons -- chiefly, powerful short-range ballistic missiles -- to Russia, they express skepticism Tehran will follow through.

Among the reasons, they say, are Tehran's need to maintain its own military stockpiles amid increased conflict in the Middle East, the desire to be seen as a compliant and legitimate arms trader by the international community, and the continuation of an already existing strategy of supporting the manufacture of such weaponry in other countries, including Russia.

Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told RFE/RL that Iran's suggestion that it is no longer subject to UN sanctions limiting its missile program is more "political, rather than technical" as it seeks to "normalize" its ability to conduct military trades and transfers.

"The actual impact of the expiry of the UN Security Council restrictions on Iran's missile program, in terms of its impact on Iran's ability to develop its missile program, is rather limited," Azizi said. "Because all these years we witnessed that, despite those restrictions being in place, Iran managed to develop not only its missile program, but also its drone program, its military capabilities, to an unprecedented level."

Azizi notes that Iran achieved this in part due to technical and scientific cooperation with other partners, mainly North Korea but also with Russia and Moscow's allies.

Iran set up a manufacturing facility for reconnaissance and combat drones in Tajikistan and Belarus is reportedly seeking to establish a factory to produce the Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drone believed to be used extensively by Russia in its war against Ukraine.

Western officials have also revealed the existence of a drone facility being built in Russia with Iran's assistance that would allow Moscow to build domestic versions of Iranian drones in huge numbers and could be in operation by early 2024.

With the expiration of the UN sanctions, which were largely regarded as toothless, Azizi says he expects Iran to stick to its policy "of considering its military capabilities as nonnegotiable" in any international negotiations while "continuing to advance its capabilities."

Iran can already boast some of the most sophisticated missiles and drones in the Middle East at a time when Tehran's support of proxies and militant groups in the region is being watched closely as archenemy Israel battles the Iranian-backed Hamas extremist organization, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Iran has widely been accused of delivering cheap but effective kamikaze drones to Moscow. While Iran denies the allegations, saying it only sold drones to Moscow before the war started, U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Tehran of supplying Shahed-136 Iranian drones that Russia has used to destroy civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. There has been evidence of Iranian drones rebranded as Russian Geran-2s being used on the battlefield.

And as the two countries have increased military-technical cooperation, Iran's Defense Ministry has routinely showcased its ballistic, cruise, anti-tank, and air-defense missile systems to Russian officials.

The sanctions, in effect since 2015 and enshrined in UN Resolution 2231, expired on October 18 as part of the moribund Iran nuclear deal with world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The United States withdrew from the deal, which offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear program, in 2018. As European signatories Britain, France, and Germany tried to keep the pact alive, Iran abandoned some of its commitments, but never withdrew from the JCPOA.

The UN sanctions, which were introduced when the Security Council approved the JCPOA, called on Iran, among other things, "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons." Under the terms, any countries wishing to engage in related trade with Iran were required to first get approval from the UN Security Council.

In separate statements as the sanctions expired, Iran and Russia were quick to claim that they would no longer be bound by the restrictions, although neither side announced any concrete plans for future cooperation regarding Iran's ballistic-missile program.

Iran's Defense Ministry, for its part, said Tehran regarded the development as an opportunity to "strengthen its defense capabilities." But Azizi said Iran now "sees itself free from restrictions to export military technology and weapons, rather than to import them."

Russia, Azizi said, is also interested in underscoring that "there are no more restrictions or special commitments that Iran needs to observe in its military-technical cooperation when it comes to missiles" so that it can also "potentially increase the potential for Iran to send missiles to Russia."

Iran's previous export of Shahed-136 drones to Russia could be explained in part because they "arguably" fell under the UN's classification of conventional weapons, according to Jeremy Binnie, Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes.

A kamikaze drone alleged to be an Iranian-made Shahed is seen in the sky over Kyiv during a strike.
A kamikaze drone alleged to be an Iranian-made Shahed is seen in the sky over Kyiv during a strike.

"We have not seen any evidence of transfers of Iranian missiles to Russia so far, but it is unclear if this has been because the Iranians did not want to be seen to be so obviously violating UNSCR 2231," Binnie told RFE/RL in written comments.

Now that the UN sanctions have expired, he said, Iran "may now be more willing to overtly provide arms" to Russia, Binnie said.

As for Russia seeking Iranian missiles, Azizi said, "as Ukraine's Western allies increase the level of their military support for Ukraine, there might be a moment that the Russian leaders decide [to import Iranian missiles because] it's not going to make any difference."

Whether Iran would actually part with such weaponry is another question, particularly considering the current war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the prospect of direct Iranian involvement in that conflict.

"Another consideration for the Iranians is maintaining their own military capabilities, which would be undermined by transferring significant numbers of missiles to Russia," Binnie said. "The uncertain situation in the Middle East right now is likely to increase Iranian unwillingness to supply weapons to Russia that they feel should be retained at home or supplied to allied groups in support of its regional goals."

One solution, Binnie said, "might be to replicate what has happened with the Shahed-136s, whereby Iran supplies initial batches, then transfers the technology to Russia so it can build them locally."

He said that while Russia had a sophisticated missile production capability of its own, "the Iranians would be teaching them how to make cheaper missiles using supply chains that circumnavigate Western sanctions."

The United States and the European Union moved quickly to impose new obstacles as the UN sanctions -- intended to blunt Iran's ballistic-missile program, and by extension its possible acquisition of nuclear weapons and delivery systems -- expired.

In September, Britain, France, and Germany announced that they would maintain their existing sanctions related to Iran's controversial nuclear program, which Tehran claims is for civilian purposes only, and its development of ballistic missiles.

The United States on October 18, the same day that the UN sanctions expired, announced new sanctions targeting individuals and companies in Iran and Russia, among other countries, in an effort to penalize Iran's efforts to buy or sell technology or equipment related to its missile and drone programs.

U.S. Imposes New Sanctions On Support Network For Iran's Missile, Drone Programs

The sanctions were a sign that Iran's missile program will remain restricted after the expiration of UN Security Council sanctions on October 18. (file photo)
The sanctions were a sign that Iran's missile program will remain restricted after the expiration of UN Security Council sanctions on October 18. (file photo)

The U.S. Treasury Department on October 18 announced new sanctions on 11 individuals, eight entities, and one vessel that the United States says have enabled Iran's "destabilizing ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs."

The individuals, entities, and the vessel designated by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) are based in Iran, Hong Kong, China, and Venezuela, the department said in a news release.

“The persons designated today have materially supported Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), or their subordinates in the production and proliferation of missiles and UAVs,” the Treasury Department said.

Iran’s “reckless choice to continue its proliferation of destructive UAVs and other weapons prolongs numerous conflicts in regions around the world," Treasury Undersecretary Brian Nelson added in the news release.

The sanctions, which freeze any assets held in U.S. jurisdiction and bar people in the U.S. from dealing with them, were a sign that Iran's missile program will remain restricted after the expiration of UN Security Council sanctions on October 18.

The expiration of the sanctions falls under a sunset clause of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which gave Tehran relief from sanctions in exchange for limiting its nuclear program. Former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned that deal in 2018 and restored U.S. on Iran sanctions. Efforts to revive it have failed.

Russia said on October 17 that after expiration of the sanctions imposed in the nuclear pact the transfers of missile technology to Iran would no longer needed Security Council approval. But Russia did not say whether it planned to support Tehran's missile development.

In light of the expiry of the UN’s restrictions on Iran’s missile-related activities, the State Department on October 18 published a joint statement related to countering Iranian missile-related activities.

The 45 countries that signed the statement have committed to countering Iranian missile-related activities through the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a program designed to prevent shipments of weapons of mass destruction.

The countries that endorsed the PSI said they reaffirmed their commitment “to take all necessary measures to prevent the supply, sale, or transfer of ballistic missile-related items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology, to protect peace and stability in the region.”

The statement said the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems continues to pose a significant threat to international security.

“In this environment, Iran’s missile program remains one of the greatest challenges to international nonproliferation efforts,” it said.

The U.S. effort to limit Iran's missile and drone programs comes amid renewed U.S. criticism of Tehran for backing Hamas, which on October 7 carried out a rampage against communities in southern Israel in which at least 1,300 people died and is designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States.

U.S. officials have said they do not have evidence tying Iran to ordering or planning the attacks but have said Tehran is complicit because of its long-term support for Hamas.

With reporting by Reuters

EU To Maintain Sanctions On Iran Over Its Nuclear Program

(file photo)
(file photo)

The European Union said on October 17 that it was maintaining sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program beyond a deadline in a landmark nuclear deal. Under the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major powers, Tehran agreed to restrain its nuclear program in return for relief from Western sanctions. But the accord began unravelling in 2018 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it and began reimposing sanctions. Iran retaliated by dropping some of its obligations under the agreement. The EU sanctions remaining in place include blacklisting missile manufacturers and affiliates of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Blinken Suggests Iran Is Not A Responsible Actor In Its Nuclear Program

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (file photo)

Iran's decision to bar some UN nuclear inspectors suggests it is not interested in being a responsible actor when it comes to its atomic program, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on September 22. "We tried to work indirectly with Iran as well as with European partners and even Russia and China to see if we can get a return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal ... But Iran couldn't or wouldn't do that," Blinken told reporters. On September 23, the head of the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) condemned Tehran's move to bar multiple inspectors assigned to the country. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iran's President Says U.S. Should Ease Sanctions To Demonstrate It Wants To Return To Nuclear Deal

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said on September 20 that relations with the United States can move forward if the Biden administration demonstrates it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, and a first step should be easing sanctions. He told a news conference that the Americans have reached out through several channels “saying they wish to have a dialogue, but we do believe that it must be accompanied by action.” “So talk alone is not going to do it,” Raisi said. But action on sanctions can be “a solid foundation for continuing” discussions. The Iranian leader added: “We have not left the table of negotiations.” To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iranian President Urges U.S. To Demonstrate It Wants To Return To The 2015 Nuclear Deal

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the UN General Assembly on September 19.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the UN General Assembly on September 19.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on September 19 that his country will never give up its right “to have peaceful nuclear energy” and urged the United States “to demonstrate in a verifiable fashion” that it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Addressing the annual high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly, Raisi said the American withdrawal from the deal trampled on U.S. commitments and was “an inappropriate response” to Iran’s fulfillment of its obligations. Iran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons and continues to insist that its program is entirely for peaceful purposes. But UN nuclear chief Rafael Grossi said in an interview with the Associated Press that the Iranian government’s removal of many cameras and electronic monitoring systems installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency make it impossible to give assurances about the country’s nuclear program. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Updated

Iran Withdraws Designation Of Three IAEA Nuclear Inspectors In Move Condemned By Watchdog

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran has "effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran."
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran has "effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran."

Tehran has informed the UN nuclear watchdog that it has withdrawn the designation of several agency nuclear experts assigned to inspect enrichment activities in Iran, a move “strongly condemned” by the organization’s chief.

“These inspectors are among the most experienced agency experts with unique knowledge in enrichment technology,” Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a statement on September 16.

“They have conducted essential verification work at the enrichment facilities in Iran which are under agency safeguards,” he added.

Grossi said that “with today’s decision, Iran has effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran.”

He added that Tehran’s move, "while formally permitted by the NPT Safeguards Agreement, has been exercised by Iran in a manner that affects in a direct and severe way the ability of the IAEA to conduct effectively its inspections in Iran."

Iran complained later that the United States and the so-called E3 -- Britain, France, and Germany -- had politicized the IAEA board for their own interests, but said it would nevertheless continue to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog.

"Unfortunately, despite Iran's positive, constructive, and continuous interaction of the with the agency, the three European countries and the United States abused the [IAEA's] Board of Governors for their own political purposes," Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.

No reason for the move against the inspectors was immediately given.

Reuters quoted a Vienna-based diplomat as saying Iran had withdrawn the designation of all the German and French inspectors. There already were no U.S. or British inspectors on the team.

Earlier this year, Tehran had vowed to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog to resolve outstanding issues after inspections -- under the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) -- reportedly showed that Tehran had enriched uranium to near nuclear-weapons grade.

Grossi, speaking to reporters in Vienna on March 4 following a two-day visit to Tehran, said a new agreement included the reinstallation of monitoring equipment and would allow access to experts for an investigation into uranium traces at three undeclared sites.

On September 13, more than 60 countries demanded that Iran immediately answer questions about its nuclear program in a statement read by a Danish diplomat at the IAEA board meeting in Vienna.

The statement demanded that Tehran disclose the current location of nuclear materials from former secret facilities and sought clarification on other ambiguities about Iran's uranium stockpile.

A day later, the United States and its three European allies threatened Tehran with another UN resolution, although they didn't specify when or if they would actually do so."

Grossi said Tehran’s latest move was an overreaction to those outside demands.

“I strongly condemn this disproportionate and unprecedented unilateral measure which affects the normal planning and conduct of agency verification activities in Iran and openly contradicts the cooperation that should exist between the agency and Iran,” he said.

“Without effective cooperation, confidence and trust will continue to be elusive and the agency will not be in a position to discharge effectively its verification mandate in Iran and provide credible assurances that nuclear material and activities in Iran are for peaceful purposes.”

He called on Tehran to “reconsider its decision and to return to a path of cooperation with the agency.”

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda

London, Paris, Berlin Agree On Iran Nuclear Sanctions Strategy

Various centrifuge machines line a hall at Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment facility.
Various centrifuge machines line a hall at Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment facility.

London, Paris, and Berlin on September 14 said they had agreed to a strategy maintaining nuclear-proliferation-related sanctions on Iran beyond an October date that had been set to bring partial respite to Tehran. Under the terms of a 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal that Washington unilaterally abrogated in 2018 under former President Donald Trump, some sanctions were due to be lifted on October 18 under the terms of a so-called sunset clause. But Britain, France, and Germany noted Tehran's "noncompliance" and underlined their commitment to ensure the country does not obtain a nuclear-weapons capacity.

U.S., Europeans Again Threaten Iran With IAEA Resolution But Leave Timing Open

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks at the agency's headquarters in Vienna on September 11.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks at the agency's headquarters in Vienna on September 11.

The United States and three European allies have threatened Iran with another resolution at the UN nuclear watchdog's board demanding action on issues such as explaining uranium traces found at undeclared sites, but left open whether or when they might follow through. The warning delivered by Britain, France, and Germany -- the so-called E3 -- and the United States to a quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors meeting published on September 14 comes as the West's standoff with Iran has been complicated by secret U.S.-Iran talks. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iran Must Answer Questions About Its Nuclear Program, Dozens Of Nations Demand

Dozens of countries have demanded that Iran immediately answer questions about its nuclear program, including disclosing the current location of nuclear materials from former secret facilities. The demand came in a joint statement on September 13 from more than 60 countries that was read out by a Danish diplomat at the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in Vienna. The countries also asked for clarification on other ambiguities about Iran's uranium stockpile. The countries also criticized Tehran for not issuing entry visas to certain IAEA inspectors.

Updated

Tehran Names Five Iranians For Looming Prisoner Swap With U.S., Says Americans 'In Full Health'

Three of the five individuals the U.S. side hopes to have released are (left to right) Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, and Emad Sharghi.
Three of the five individuals the U.S. side hopes to have released are (left to right) Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, and Emad Sharghi.

Iranian officials have identified five individuals in U.S. custody whom Tehran would like handed over as part of a possible 10-person, $6 billion prisoner swap initially said to have been mapped out last month between the longtime foes.

They include three Iranians -- Mehrdad Ansari, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, and Kambiz Attar Kashani -- charged with illegally obtaining advanced or potentially dual-use technology thought to be bound for Iran that has been under tightly reimposed U.S. sanctions since 2018. Two others -- Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi and Amin Hasanzadeh -- were jailed for failing to register as a foreign agent and stealing engineering plans on behalf of Iran, respectively.

AP said Ali Karimi Magham, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, confirmed the five men's identities after the Al-Monitor website published their names.

The U.S. State Department has not officially commented on the Iranian list.

Previous reporting has identified three of the five individuals that the U.S. side wants in an exchange as two Iranian-American businessmen accused by Tehran of spying, Siamak Namazi and Emad Sharghi, along with similarly accused British-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on September 12 that the five U.S. citizens in Iranian custody who are expected to be part of the swap are "in full health," according to NBC as quoted by Reuters.

"They are very healthy and, according to our latest information, they are in full health," Raisi told Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News in an interview taped in Tehran on September 12, the U.S. television network said.

U.S. officials on September 11 confirmed that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had signed off on a sanctions waiver to allow billions in frozen Iranian assets to be transferred from South Korea to Qatar, presumably as part of the swap, and informed Congress of the plan.

Tehran had indicated earlier that it believed a swap was imminent, although it sought to decouple the asset handover from the prisoner deal.

The Biden administration has insisted in the face of Republican and other criticism that the assets involved are neither U.S. taxpayer dollars nor a ransom.

Critics argue that the freed-up assets could throw a lifeline to an Iranian economy buffeted by U.S. sanctions with Tehran continuing its belligerent behavior in the region.

"The money can only be used for humanitarian purposes and we will remain vigilant in watching the spending of those funds and have the ability to freeze them again if we need to," Reuters quoted State Department spokesman Matthew Miller as saying on September 12.

Iranian security forces have taken some 40 foreign nationals into custody during a current wave of unrest, often without revealing any charges.

Western countries have repeatedly said that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage to use in prisoner swaps.

Republican President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from a three-year-old deal between world powers and Iran to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Aside from the diplomatic and economic fallout, observers since then have attributed a series of ship seizures and attacks in the crucial Strait of Hormuz region to Tehran.

The Pentagon is said to be weighing a plan to put U.S. troops aboard commercial ships in the region, which is a conduit for around one-fifth of all global oil shipments.

Tehran has also cooperated with Russia in the Middle East in addition to supplying Moscow with crucial attack drones to further the Kremlin's war plans in Ukraine.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

IAEA Notes 'Decrease In Interest' Over Iran's Nuclear Program

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi in Vienna on September 11.
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi in Vienna on September 11.

The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Raphael Grossi, said on September 11 that he was concerned at a "decrease in interest" from unnamed IAEA member states over Iran's nuclear efforts. "There is a certain routinization of what is going on there [in Iran] and I am concerned about this, because the issues are as valid today as they were before," he told reporters on the first day of the IAEA board of governors' meeting in Vienna. Diplomatic sources say the United States and the so-called E3 group -- France, Germany, and the United Kingdom -- have no plans this week to censure Iran for its lack of cooperation with the IAEA. To see the original story by AFP, click here.

Updated

U.S. Prisoners Moved From Iranian Prison Amid Reports Of Prisoner Swap

Siamak Namazi (left to right), Morad Tahbaz, and Emad Sharqi have reportedly been moved from Evin prison.
Siamak Namazi (left to right), Morad Tahbaz, and Emad Sharqi have reportedly been moved from Evin prison.

Five U.S. citizens imprisoned in Iran on charges of collaborating with a hostile government have been transferred from Evin prison in Tehran to an unspecified hotel amid reports that the United States and Iran have reached a deal on a prisoner swap.

The U.S. citizens were transferred on August 10 after months of closed-door negotiations between Tehran and Washington.

Iranian state media reported that the Americans had been transferred as part of a prisoner-swap deal with the United States.

"Based on the agreement, five Iranian prisoners in the U.S. and five American prisoners in Iran will be exchanged," the official IRNA news agency reported, quoting an informed source.

A statement from the White House National Security Council (NSC) confirmed the release of U.S. citizens Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharqi, and two other Americans who wish to remain private.

NSC spokesman John Kirby said under the deal Iran would be given access to money in an existing account and there would be "oversight" to ensure that the money would be used for humanitarian purposes.

Kirby declined to confirm that the amount in the account was $6 billion as reported by U.S. media but in an interview with CNN said the money was not U.S. taxpayer dollars. He also denied that it amounted to a ransom payment but added that there was "no way to get these Americans home without some bargaining with the Iranians."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference that the release of the Americans from prison was a "positive step" and the beginning of a process that he expects will lead to their return to the United States.

Blinken told reporters that the State Department had spoken with the five Americans on August 10 and that he was not aware of any other Americans still detained in Iran.

An earlier NSC statement quoted spokeswoman Adrienne Watson as saying that while the release of the Americans was encouraging, "they should have never been detained in the first place."

Negotiations for their eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate, Watson added. The statement made no mention of a prisoner exchange.

The initial report of the Americans' transfer came from Jared Genser, a lawyer for one of the prisoners, who said four of the prisoners were transferred from Evin prison to the hotel. Genser said it appeared that a fifth U.S. citizen had been placed under house arrest.

Genser called the move of the Americans from Evin prison to house arrest an "important development."

"Although I hope this is the first step towards their ultimate release, at best it is only a preliminary action and nothing more," he added.

The prisoners were released as The New York Times and other U.S. media reported that Iran and the United States had reached a deal to free the Americans in exchange for an unspecified number of jailed Iranians and Tehran gaining access to $6 billion in oil revenue for humanitarian purposes.

Gregory Brew, an analyst at Eurasia Group, told Radio Farda that the development was the first constructive sign of progress in the relationship between the United States and Iran since reports of an informal understanding in June.

"Despite escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, it still looks like both sides are interested in taking small steps toward de-escalation," Brew said. "The important area to watch is the nuclear issue. The U.S. wants Iran to release its prisoners, but what it really wants to see is Iran increase its cooperation with the UN nuclear agency and ramp down its enrichment of uranium."

It is possible that progress on the nuclear issue will build off the prisoner deal, Brew said, but added, "We'll have to wait for an update from the UN nuclear agency to know whether Iran has taken the steps the U.S. wants it to take."

Iran's economy has been hobbled by Western sanctions over its human rights record and unrest has rattled the country since late last year amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support.

Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into the demonstrations, which officials across the country have tried to quell with harsh measures.

U.S.-Iranian relations have also withered under a failure to revive a nuclear deal that President Joe Biden vowed to renew when he ran for president.

Negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers remain deadlocked. In the absence of a deal Tehran has reduced its commitments to allow monitoring and provide further information on its nuclear program.

With reporting by The New York Times, AP, AFP, and Reuters

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