Iran insists it can enrich uranium to 90% purity – weapons grade – if needed

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Wednesday it could enrich uranium up to 90% purity — weapons grade — if its nuclear reactors needed it, but added it still sought the revival of a 2015 deal that would limit its atomic program in return for a lifting of sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani’s remark is his second such public comment this year about 90% enrichment — a level suitable for a nuclear bomb — underlining Iran’s resolve to keep breaching the deal in the absence of any accord to revive it.

The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is obtaining enough fissile material – weapons-grade highly enriched uranium or plutonium – for the bomb’s core.

Iran says it has never sought nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization can enrich uranium by 20% and 60% and if one day our reactors need it, it can enrich uranium to 90% purity,” Rouhani told a cabinet meeting, Iranian state media reported.

The nuclear deal caps the fissile purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67%, well under the 20% achieved before the pact and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

Iran has been breaching the deal in several ways after the United States withdrew from the agreement in 2018, including by producing 20% and 60% enriched uranium.

Rouhani, who will hand over the presidency to hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi on Aug. 5, implicitly criticized Iran’s top decision makers for “not allowing” his government to reinstate the nuclear deal during its term in office.

“They took away the opportunity to reach an agreement from this government. We deeply regret missing this opportunity,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the president, has the last say on all state matters such as nuclear policy.

Like Khamenei, Raisi has backed indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at bringing back the arch foes into full compliance with the accord. Former U.S. President Donald Trump quit the deal three years ago, saying it was biased in favour of Iran, and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran.

The sixth round of nuclear talks in Vienna adjourned on June 20. The next round of the talks has yet to be scheduled, and Iranian and Western officials have said that significant gaps still remain to be resolved.

Two senior Iranian officials told Reuters that president-elect Raisi planned to adopt “a harder line” in the talks after taking office, adding that the next round might resume in late September or early October.

One of the officials said many members of Iran’s nuclear team might be replaced with hardline officials, but top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi would stay “at least for a while”.

The second official said Raisi planned to show “less flexibility and demand more concessions” from Washington such as keeping a chain of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in place and insisting on the removal of human rights and terrorism related U.S. sanctions.

Trump blacklisted dozens of institutions vital to Iran’s economy using laws designed to punish foreign actors for supporting terrorism or weapons proliferation.

Removing oil and financial sanctions is essential if Iran is to export its oil, the top prize for Tehran for complying with the nuclear agreement and reining in its atomic program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Jason Neely, William Maclean)

Iran begins process of making enriched uranium metal; U.S., E3 dismayed

By Francois Murphy, Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed

VIENNA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Iran has begun the process of producing enriched uranium metal, the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Tuesday, a move that could help it develop a nuclear weapon and that three European powers said threatened talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran’s steps, which were disclosed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and which Tehran said were aimed at developing fuel for a research reactor, also drew criticism from the United States, which called them an “unfortunate step backwards.”

U.S. and European officials made clear that Iran’s decision would complicate, and potentially torpedo, indirect U.S.-Iranian talks seeking to bring both nations back into compliance with the 2015 deal, which was abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The deal imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program to make it harder for Tehran to develop fissile material for nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. After Trump withdrew, Iran began violating many of its restrictions.

Tehran has already produced a small amount of uranium metal this year that was not enriched. That is a breach of the deal, which bans all work on uranium metal since it can be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb.

“Today, Iran informed the Agency that UO2 (uranium oxide) enriched up to 20% U–235 would be shipped to the R&D laboratory at the Fuel Fabrication Plant in Esfahan, where it would be converted to UF4 (uranium tetrafluoride) and then to uranium metal enriched to 20% U–235, before using it to manufacture the fuel,” an IAEA statement said.

A confidential IAEA report seen by Reuters said the agency had confirmed that Iran had taken the second of the four steps described, making clear it has begun the process.

Britain, France and Germany said on Tuesday they had “grave concern” about Iran’s decision, which violates the nuclear deal formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Iran has no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon,” they said in a joint statement issued by Britain’s foreign ministry.

“With its latest steps, Iran is threatening a successful outcome to the Vienna talks despite the progress achieved in six rounds of negotiations,” they said, and urged Iran to return to the talks, which began in April and adjourned on June 20. No date has been set for a next round.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Washington was not setting a deadline for the talks but noted “that as time proceeds Iran’s nuclear advances will have a bearing on our view of returning to the JCPOA.”

Price said the United States found it “worrying” that Iran was continuing to violate the agreement “especially with experiments that have value for nuclear weapons research.

“It’s another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” he said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and by Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis in Washington and by David Milliken in London; Writing by Francois Murphy and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Goodman and Sonya Hepinstall)

Iran names hardline cleric as top judge amid calls for probe into past abuses

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran’s supreme leader promoted a hardline cleric to serve as head of the judiciary on Friday, amid international calls for investigations into allegations of abuses.

Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, now the judiciary’s deputy head, will replace Ebrahim Raisi, who takes office in August as president after winning a June 18 election.

Ejei was put on U.S. and EU sanctions blacklists a decade ago for his role in a crackdown on a popular uprising when he served as intelligence minister during a disputed election.

The choice of someone with such a high profile as a hardliner could draw further attention to allegations of past abuses by Iran at a time when the new U.S. administration is trying to negotiate a thaw with Tehran.

This week, a U.N. expert called for a new investigation into Raisi’s alleged role in the deaths of thousands of political prisoners when he served as a judge in the 1980s. Raisi denies wrongdoing.

Rights groups have criticized the election of Raisi in a vote in which prominent rivals were barred from standing.

In a statement, Khamenei urged Ejei to “promote justice, restore public rights, ensure legitimate freedoms, and oversee the proper implementation of laws, prevent crime, and resolutely fight corruption,” state news agency IRNA reported.

The U.N. investigator on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, told Reuters this week there should be an independent inquiry into allegations of state-ordered executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, and the role played by Raisi as Tehran deputy prosecutor at the time.

“As I have described in my reports, there is a widespread and systemic impunity in the country for gross violations of human rights, both historically in the past as well as in the present,” he said. “There are very few if any real avenues for accountability in line with international standards within domestic channels.”

Iran has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of its human rights record as baseless and a result of a lack of understanding of its Islamic laws. It says its legal system is independent and not influenced by political interests.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said last month that Raisi’s election was a blow for human rights and called for him to be investigated over his role in the 1988 executions.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Robin Emmot in Brussels and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by William Maclean and Howard Goller)

U.S. warplanes strike Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Syria

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States said on Sunday it carried out another round of air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, this time in response to drone attacks by the militia against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.

In a statement, the U.S. military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.

Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction they said were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate.

The strikes came at the direction of President Joe Biden, the second time he has ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia since taking office five months ago. Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The strikes came even as Biden’s administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalize such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.

Biden’s critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a U.S. military presence in Iraq or Syria.

Iran called on the United States to avoid “creating crisis” in the region.

“Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.

In an apparent indication that Baghdad is determined to avoid getting sucked into a U.S.-Iran escalation, Iraq’s military issued a rare condemnation of the U.S. strikes. The Iraqi and U.S. militaries continue close coordination in a separate battle in Iraq, fighting remnants of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State.

Biden and the White House declined comment on the strikes on Sunday. But Biden will meet Israel’s outgoing president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on Monday for a broad discussion that will include Iran and U.S. efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Those efforts have raised serious concerns in Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.

U.S. officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the U.S. military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The U.S. military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Matthew Lewis, William Maclean)

President-elect Raisi backs nuclear talks, rules out meeting Biden

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -President-elect Ebrahim Raisi on Monday backed talks between Iran and six world powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal but flatly rejected meeting U.S. President Joe Biden, even if Washington removed all sanctions.

In his first news conference since he was elected on Friday, the hardline cleric said his foreign policy priority would be improving ties with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, while calling on Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia to immediately halt its intervention in Yemen.

Raisi, 60, a strident critic of the West, will take over from pragmatist Hassan Rouhani on Aug. 3 as Iran seeks to salvage the tattered nuclear deal and be rid of punishing U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

“We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests … America should immediately return to the deal and fulfill its obligations under the deal,” he said.

Negotiations have been under way in Vienna since April to work out how Iran and the United States can both return to compliance with the nuclear pact, which Washington abandoned in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump before re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

Iran has subsequently breached the deal’s limits on enrichment of uranium, designed to minimize the risk of it developing nuclear weapons potential. Tehran has long denied having any such ambition.

Raisi said Iran’s foreign policy would not be limited to the nuclear deal, adding that “all U.S. sanctions must be lifted and verified by Tehran”.

Iranian and Western officials alike say Raisi’s rise is unlikely to alter Iran’s negotiating stance in talks to revive the nuclear deal – Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all major policy.

Asked if he would meet U.S. President Joe Biden if those sanctions were lifted, Raisi answered: “No.”

RIGHTS AND REGIONAL POLICY

Raisi is under U.S. sanctions over a past which includes what the United States and human rights groups say was his involvement in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic in 1988.

When asked about human rights groups’ allegations that he was involved in the killings, he said: “If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised.”

“I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far,” he said.

Gulf Arab states have said it would be dangerous to separate the nuclear pact from Tehran’s missile program and “destabilizing” behavior in the Middle East, where Tehran and Riyadh have fought decades of proxy wars, in countries from Yemen to Iraq.

Echoing Khamenei’s stance, Raisi said Iran’s “regional activities and ballistic missile program” were non-negotiable.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 after Iran-backed Houthi forces drove its government out of the capital Sanaa. The conflict has been largely stalemated for several years.

“They (the United States) did not comply with the previous agreement, how do they want to enter into new discussions?” he said.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which severed ties in 2016, began direct talks in Iraq in April aimed at containing tensions. “The reopening of the Saudi embassy is not a problem for Iran,” said Raisi.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; writing by Raya Jalabi and Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Timothy Heritage)

Judge under U.S. sanctions set to take over Iran presidency

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Millions of Iranians voted on Friday in a contest set to hand the presidency to a hardline judge who is subject to U.S. sanctions, though anger over economic hardship means many will heed calls for a boycott.

Senior officials appealed for a large turnout in an election widely seen as a referendum on their handling of the economy, including rising prices and unemployment and a collapse in the value of its currency.

“I urge everyone with any political view to vote,” judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi, the front-runner in the contest, said after casting his ballot.

“Our people’s grievances over shortcomings are real, but if it is the reason for not participating, then it is wrong.”

While state television showed long queues at polling stations in several cities, the semi-official Fars news agency reported 22 million or 37% of voters had cast ballots by 7:30 pm (1500 GMT), citing its own reporter. The interior ministry said it could not confirm turnout figures.

After voting in the capital Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians follow suit, saying “each vote counts … come and vote and choose your president”.

Raisi, 60, is backed by security hawks in his bid to succeed Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist prevented under the constitution from serving a third four-year term in the post, which runs the government day-to-day and reports to Khamenei.

Supported by the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, Raisi, a close Khamenei ally who vows to fight corruption, is under U.S. sanctions for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners decades ago.

Voters reached by Reuters expressed mixed views.

Maryam, 52, a hairdresser in Karaj near Tehran, said she would not vote because “I have lost confidence in the system.”

“Every time I voted in the past, I had hope that my living standard would improve. But I lost hope when I saw the highest official in the country wasn’t brave enough to resign when he couldn’t make things better,” she said, referring to Rouhani.

Asked which candidate he preferred, Mohammad, 32, at a polling station in a hamlet in southern Iran, replied: “To be honest none of them, but our representative in parliament says we should vote for Raisi so that everything will improve.”

BOYCOTT

“My vote is a big NO to the Islamic Republic,” said Farzaneh, 58, from the central city of Yazd, referring to the country’s system of clerical rule. She said contrary to what state TV reported, “the polling stations are almost empty here”.

Mohammad, 40, an engineer, said he would not vote because “the results are known beforehand and more important, if Mr. Raisi was serious about tackling corruption he should have done so by now”.

While hundreds of Iranians, including relatives of dissidents killed since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and political prisoners, have called for an election boycott, the establishment’s religiously devout core supporters are expected to vote for Raisi.

More than 59 million Iranians can vote. Polls close at 1930 GMT but can be extended for two hours. Results are expected around midday on Saturday.

A win for Raisi would confirm the political demise of pragmatist politicians like Rouhani, weakened by the U.S. decision to quit the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.

The new sanctions slashed oil exports from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2018 to as low as an estimated 200,000 bpd in some months of 2020, although volumes have since crept up. Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 70% in value since 2018.

With inflation and joblessness at about 39% and 11% respectively, the clerical leadership needs a high vote count to boost its legitimacy, damaged after a series of protests against poverty and political curbs since 2017.

Official opinion polls suggest turnout could be as low as 44%, well below 73.3% in 2017.

Khamenei, not the president, has the final say on Iran’s nuclear and foreign policies, so a Raisi win would not disrupt Iran’s bid to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement and break free of sanctions.

ECONOMIC MISERY

Raisi’s record as a hardline judge accused of abuses could worry Washington and liberal Iranians, analysts said, especially given President Joe Biden’s focus on human rights.

Raisi was appointed by Khamenei to the job of judiciary chief in 2019. A few months later, Washington sanctioned him for alleged abuses including what rights groups say was his role in the executions of political prisoners in 1980s and the suppression of unrest in 2009.

Iran has never acknowledged the mass executions, and Raisi has never publicly addressed allegations about his role.

Raisi’s main rival is the moderate former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who says a win for any hardliner will mean more sanctions.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean, Giles Elgood, Philippa Fletcher)

Iran’s biggest navy ship sinks after fire in Gulf of Oman

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s largest navy ship the Kharg sank on Wednesday after catching fire in the Gulf of Oman, but the crew were safely rescued, Iranian media reported.

No further explanation was given for the latest incident in a region of sensitive waterways, where there have been accusations of attacks on ships owned by arch-enemies Iran and Israel.

State TV said the fire on Iran’s highest-tonnage naval vessel started around 2:25 a.m. on Wednesday (21:55 GMT) near the Iranian port of Jask, where it was on a training mission.

The Gulf of Oman connects to the Strait of Hormuz where about a fifth of the world’s oil passes.

Rescue operations for the Kharg went on for hours, the statement on state TV said, with all the crew disembarking.

“All efforts to save the vessel were unsuccessful and it sank,” the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

In April, Iran said one of its vessels, the Saviz, had been targeted in the Red Sea, after media reports the ship had been attacked with limpet mines.

That came after Israel and Iran had blamed each other for a series of reported attacks on cargo ships since late February.

Iran has refused to recognize Israel since its Islamic Revolution in 1979 that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah. Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to its existence.

The shipping incidents have occurred since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, pledging to rejoin Iran’s 2015 nuclear containment deal with six world powers – abandoned by his predecessor Donald Trump in a move welcomed by Israel – if Tehran returns to full compliance with the accord.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Iran says nuclear talks not at impasse, but difficult issues remain

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran believes that barriers to the revival of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers are complicated but not insurmountable, a spokesman said on Tuesday, denying that negotiations had stalled.

Iran and six powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Tehran and Washington to take, respectively, on nuclear activities and sanctions, for the pact to resume.

“There is no impasse in the Vienna talks,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference streamed live by a state-run website.

“Negotiations have reached a stage where a few key issues need to be decided, and these issues require the proper attention, perfectionism and time.”

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.

“It is natural that due to the complexities created by the Trump administration’s numerous sanctions and Iran’s measures … Many details need to be considered, but none of these obstacles are insurmountable,” Rabiei added.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator expressed doubt that the current round of talks would be the final one.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington will return to the pact if Tehran first resumes compliance with its strict limits on uranium enrichment.

Separately, France, one of the signatories to the deal, voiced concern after a report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which showed on Monday that Iran had failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll, asked whether Paris wanted to resurrect a resolution criticizing Iran at the IAEA watchdog for not clarifying the uranium issue, said: “We strongly call on Iran to provide such responses as quickly as possible.”

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles. The three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, and John Irish in Paris; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)

Parties to Iran nuclear talks to speed up efforts for Iranian, U.S. compliance

VIENNA (Reuters) -The parties negotiating a revival of the Iran nuclear deal agreed on Tuesday to speed up efforts to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance, diplomats said.

Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia began a third round of meetings in Vienna on Tuesday to agree yo steps that would be needed if the 2015 agreement is to be revived.

The main differences are over what sanctions the United States will need to remove, what steps Iran will need to take to resume its obligations to curb its nuclear program, and how to sequence this process to satisfy both sides.

“The discussions proved that participants are guided by the unity of purpose which is full restoration of the nuclear deal in its original form,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s ambassador to the U.N. atomic watchdog, said on Twitter after senior diplomats met in the Austrian capital.

“It was decided to expedite the process.”

A U.S. delegation is in a separate location in Vienna, enabling representatives of the five powers to shuttle between both sides because Iran has rejected direct talks.

Three expert working groups have been tasked with unravelling the most important issues and drafting solutions.

At the end of talks last week, the United States and its European allies said serious differences still persisted despite making some progress in their latest indirect talks.

“We hope all parties will sustain the momentum we have already reached in their efforts towards an earliest resolution of this issue before us,” Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the U.N. watchdog, told reporters, adding that senior diplomats would reconvene on Wednesday to take stock.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. to ease COVID-19 travel restrictions for Chinese students

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will ease travel restrictions allowing Chinese students to come to the United States for classes this fall and from other countries where most non-U.S. citizens are barred because of the coronavirus pandemic, government officials told Reuters.

The U.S. State Department is set to announce later on Tuesday it is expanding its national interest exemptions to cover students and academics around the world starting on Aug. 1 after it made the change in March for European students, officials said.

The United States has barred most non-U.S. citizens from the United States who have been in China, Brazil, South Africa, Iran and most of Europe within the prior two weeks. Now students from all those countries will be eligible to enter the United States in a few months’ time.

The largest number of international students in the United States are from China. About 35% of international students in the United States in the 2019-20 school year were from China, according to the International Education Exchange (IEE), nearly twice as high as the second highest, India.

In the 2019-20 academic year 372,000 Chinese nationals attended universities and colleges in the United States, the IEE said in a November 2020 report.

In January 2020 then President Donald Trump first imposed the restrictions barring nearly all non-U.S. citizens who were in China from entering the United States.

U.S. colleges and universities have been urging the State Department to take the step before international students had to make enrollment decisions.

The American Council on Education had pressed the administration of President Joe Biden to act quickly, saying in a letter last month the administration could “deliver a welcoming message to current and prospective international students, which can help restore the U.S. as a destination of choice, as well as supporting an important economic activity as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Another big issue has been the requirement that first-time student visa applicants have in-person interviews at U.S. embassies and consulates.

The group cited a study that the overall economic impact generated by international students had declined by $1.8 billion during the 2019-2020 academic year, from $40.5 billion in the prior year.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)