U.S. grants licenses for more aid flow to Afghanistan despite sanctions

By Daphne Psaledakis

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States on Friday further paved the way for aid to flow to Afghanistan despite U.S. sanctions on the Taliban, who seized control of the country last month, issuing general licenses amid concern that Washington’s punitive measures could compound an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. Treasury Department said it issued two general licenses, one allowing the U.S. government, NGOs and certain international organizations, including the United Nations, to engage in transactions with the Taliban or Haqqani Network – both under sanctions – that are necessary to provide humanitarian assistance.

The second license authorizes certain transactions related to the export and re-export of food, medicine and medical devices.

“Treasury is committed to facilitating the flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support their basic human needs,” Andrea Gacki, director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in the statement.

She added that Washington will continue to work with financial institutions, NGOs and international organizations to ease the flow of agricultural goods, medicine and other resources while upholding sanctions on the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others.

The United Nations said that at the start of the year more than 18 million people – about half of Afghanistan’s population – require aid amid the second drought in four years.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that Afghanistan is on “the verge of a dramatic humanitarian disaster” and has decided to engage the Taliban in order to help the country’s people.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is committed to allowing humanitarian work in Afghanistan to continue despite Washington listing the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the Islamist militant group and bar Americans from dealing with them, including the contribution of funds, goods or services.

Reuters reported last month that Washington issued a license authorizing the U.S. government and its partners to continue to facilitate humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

Friday’s move expands on that specific license, allowing international organizations and NGOs to pay taxes, fees, import duties or permits, licenses or other necessary transactions for assistance to reach the people of Afghanistan.

A Taliban offensive as foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan after a 20-year war culminated in the capture of the capital Kabul on Aug. 15, two decades after they were driven from power by a U.S.-led campaign in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

U.S. slaps sanctions on Nord Stream 2, project’s opponents say not enough

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Friday slapped sanctions on one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but opponents of nearly-completed project said the move would do little to stop it.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the administration has now sanctioned a total of seven persons and identified 16 of their vessels as blocked property under sanctions law passed by Congress.

U.S. President Joe Biden separately issued an executive order on Friday allowing for sanctions to be imposed with respect to certain Russian energy export pipelines.

But opponents of the $11 billion project to bring Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea said the new sanctions were not strong enough.

“These sanctions do nothing to halt Nord Stream 2,” said Daniel Vajdich, president of Yorktown Solutions, which advises the Ukrainian energy industry on the matter.

Biden has opposed the pipeline, like the previous two U.S. presidents, because it bypasses Ukraine, likely depriving it of lucrative gas transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

But in May the U.S. State Department waived two sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company behind the project, and its chief executive, Matthias Warning, a Putin ally.

Biden has sought to repair U.S. relations with Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, as he needs the ally’s help on everything from the economy to relations with China and Iran.

“The only thing that can stop NS2 from becoming operational is lifting the waivers and sanctioning … Nord Stream AG, which they refuse to do,” Vajdich said.

Nord Stream 2, led by Russian state energy company Gazprom and its Western partners, is almost complete with only 9 miles (15 km) left to construct, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.

ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group, estimated it could be completed by September 3.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; editing by Chris Reese, Kirsten Donovan)

U.S. sanctions Chinese officials over Hong Kong democracy crackdown

By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on seven Chinese officials over Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, Washington’s latest effort to hold China accountable for what it calls an erosion of rule of law in the former British colony.

The sanctions, posted by the U.S. Treasury Department, target individuals from China’s Hong Kong liaison office, used by Beijing to orchestrate its policies in the Chinese territory.

The seven people added to Treasury’s “specially designated nationals” list were Chen Dong, He Jing, Lu Xinning, Qiu Hong, Tan Tienui, Yang Jianping, and Yin Zonghua, all deputy directors at the liaison office according to online bios.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Chinese officials over the past year had “systematically undermined” Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, delayed elections, disqualified elected lawmakers from office, and arrested thousands for disagreeing with government policies.

“In the face of Beijing’s decisions over the past year that have stifled the democratic aspirations of people in Hong Kong, we are taking action. Today we send a clear message that the United States resolutely stands with Hong Kongers,” Blinken said in a statement.

The Treasury Department referred to a separate updated business advisory issued jointly with the departments of State, Commerce, and Homeland Security that highlighted U.S. government concerns about the impact on international companies of Hong Kong’s national security law.

Critics say Beijing implemented that law last year to facilitate a crackdown on pro-democracy activists and a free press.

The advisory said companies face risks associated with electronic surveillance without warrants and the surrender of corporate and customer data to authorities, adding that individuals and businesses should be aware of the potential consequences of engaging with sanctioned individuals or entities.

The actions were announced just over a year after former President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the territory.

The United States has already imposed sanctions on other senior officials, including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and senior police officers, for their roles in curtailing political freedoms in the territory.

BROKEN COMMITMENT

President Joe Biden said at a news conference on Thursday that the Chinese government had broken its commitment on how it would deal with Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese control in 1997.

China had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which also states the city has wide-ranging autonomy from Beijing.

Since China imposed the national security law to criminalize what it considers subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it or arrested for other reasons.

Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most vocal pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to end a 26-year run in June amid the crackdown that froze the company’s funds.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular news conference in Beijing before the actions were formally announced that the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong, and that China would make a “resolute, strong response.”

A source told Reuters on Thursday that the White House was also reviewing a possible executive order to facilitate immigration from Hong Kong, but that it was still not certain to be implemented.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is preparing a visit to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia next week. The State Department’s announcement of her trip made no mention of any stop in China, which had been anticipated in foreign policy circles and reported in some media.

A senior State Department official told reporters on Friday that Washington was still in talks with Beijing over whether Sherman would visit China.

The U.S. government on Tuesday also strengthened warnings to businesses about the growing risks of having supply chain and investment links to China’s Xinjiang region, citing forced labor and human rights abuses there, which Beijing has denied.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Doina Chiacu, Humeyra Pamuk, and David Shepardson; Editing by Paul Simao)

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)

Oil rises on expectation that Iranian supply won’t return soon

By Stephanie Kelly

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Oil prices edged higher on Tuesday after the top U.S. diplomat said that even if the United States were to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, hundreds of U.S. sanctions on Tehran would remain in place.

That could mean additional Iranian oil supply would not be re-introduced into the market soon.

“I would anticipate that even in the event of a return to compliance with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), hundreds of sanctions will remain in place, including sanctions imposed by the Trump administration,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Brent crude rose 39 cents to $71.88 a barrel, a 0.6% gain. U.S. West Texas Intermediate oil rose 51 cents to $69.74 a barrel.

“Blinken is looking at the reality of the situation and saying even if we do get a deal, there’s a long way to go,” said Phil Flynn, senior analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago. “All those people expecting a flood of oil are going to be disappointed.”

Barriers to the revival of Iran’s nuclear deal remain ahead of talks due to resume this week between Tehran and world powers, four diplomats, two Iranian officials and two analysts said.

In China, data showing China’s crude imports were down 14.6% in May on a yearly basis weighed on futures.

Crude prices have risen in recent weeks, with Brent up by nearly 40% this year and WTI gaining even more, amid expectations of demand returning as some countries succeed in vaccinating populations against COVID-19.

Restraint on supply by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies has also helped buttress prices.

Meanwhile, U.S. crude inventories have been drawing down and were forecast to drop for a third straight week, analysts said in a poll ahead of industry data from the American Petroleum Institute at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT), followed by the government’s report on Wednesday.

“The fundamental environment on the oil market remains favorable: fuel demand is recovering strongly not only in the United States, but also in Europe following the (partial) lifting of restrictions,” Commerzbank said.

There are still questions about the demand recovery’s trajectory.

In Britain, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, there are now doubts that the country will lift all coronavirus-related restrictions as previously planned on June 21.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly in New York; additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar and Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Jason Neely)

U.S. sanctions Russia for ‘malign’ acts, Moscow reacts angrily

By Trevor Hunnicutt, Arshad Mohammed and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) -The United States on Thursday imposed a broad array of sanctions on Russia, including curbs to its sovereign debt market, to punish it for interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber-hacking, bullying Ukraine and other alleged “malign” actions.

The U.S. government blacklisted Russian companies, expelled Russian diplomats and barred U.S. banks from buying sovereign bonds from Russia’s central bank, national wealth fund and finance ministry. The United States warned Russia that more penalties were possible but said it did not want to escalate.

The Russian foreign ministry reacted angrily, summoning the U.S. ambassador for a diplomatic dressing-down to tell him “a series of retaliatory measures will follow soon.” A ministry spokeswoman also said a possible summit could be imperiled.

Russia denies meddling in U.S. elections, orchestrating a cyber hack that used U.S. tech company SolarWinds Corp to penetrate U.S. government networks and using a nerve agent to poison Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin to raise concerns about these issues and the build-up of Russian forces in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine, though a top U.S. general saw only a “low to medium” risk of a Russian invasion in the next few weeks.

Biden, who also proposed a U.S.-Russian summit, is trying to strike a balance between deterring what Washington sees as hostile Russian behavior while avoiding a deeper deterioration in U.S.-Russian ties and preserving some room for cooperation.

“Our objective here is not to escalate. Our objective here is to impose costs for what we feel are unacceptable actions by the Russian government,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Among his moves, Biden signed an executive order authorizing the U.S. government to sanction any area of the Russian economy and used it to restrict Russia’s ability to issue sovereign debt to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2020 U.S. election.

Biden barred U.S. financial institutions from taking part in the primary market for rouble-denominated Russian sovereign bonds from June 14. U.S. banks have been barred from taking part in the primary market for non-rouble sovereign bonds since 2019.

He did not, however, prohibit them from buying such debt in the secondary market, a step likely to have a far more dramatic effect on the Russian bond and currency markets, which fell as news of the sanctions seeped out before recovering some losses.

“The president signed this sweeping new authority to confront Russia’s continued and growing malign activity,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

The Treasury also blacklisted 32 entities and individuals that it said had carried out Russian government-directed attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election and other “acts of disinformation and interference.”

ANALYST: RUSSIA TO CONTINUE TESTING U.S.

In concert with the European Union, Britain, Australia and Canada, the Treasury also sanctioned eight individuals associated with Russia’s ongoing occupation and repression in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The White House said it was expelling 10 Russian diplomats in Washington D.C., including representatives of the Russian intelligence services and for the first time, formally named the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) as the perpetrator of the SolarWinds Corp hack. The agency said the allegations were “nonsense” and “windbaggery.”

The U.S. government plans a new executive order to strengthen its cybersecurity, a U.S. official told reporters, suggesting it could include such elements as encryption and multifactor authentication.

The White House also said it would respond to reports Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. However, it said it would not make its response public to protect U.S. forces, saying the matter would be handled via “diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have “low to moderate” confidence in their assessment of these reports, in part because they rely on sometimes undependable testimony from detainees, it said.

Russia has long brushed off allegations of putting bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Andrew Weiss, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank analyst, was skeptical the U.S. sanctions would change a “largely competitive and adversarial relationship” in the short term or deter Russia in the long term.

“I’d be surprised if today’s very calibrated announcements by the Biden administration materially shift the relationship in either direction,” he said, saying Russia was willing to cooperate on some issues but there was unlikely ever to be a meeting of the minds on Ukraine or election interference.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the new sanctions will shift Russia’s risk calculus in a fundamental fashion,” he added. “It’s to be expected that the Russians will keep probing and testing our resolve.”

(Reporting By Trevor Hunnicutt, Tim Ahmann, Doina Chiacu, Jeff Mason, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, by Arshad Mohammed in St. Paul, Minn. and by Andrew Osborn, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Arshad Mohammed, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S.’ Blinken calls for global companies to reconsider financial support to Myanmar’s military

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on international companies to consider cutting ties to enterprises that support Myanmar’s military and he decried its crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

At least 512 civilians had been killed in nearly two months of protests against the coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group.

Blinken told reporters the violence was “reprehensible” and followed a pattern of “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators opposing military rule, including the killing of children as young as five.

The United States has condemned the Feb. 1 coup that ousted an elected government. Washington has imposed several rounds of sanctions, but Myanmar’s generals have refused to change course.

Blinken said other nations and companies worldwide should look at pulling “significant investments in enterprises that support the Burmese military.”

“They should be looking at those investments and reconsidering them as a means of denying the military the financial support it needs to sustain itself against the will of the people,” he said.

The United States last week placed Treasury sanctions on two military-owned conglomerates, which prevents U.S. companies and individuals from dealing with them.

But some companies, including firms from U.S. regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, still have business relationships with military-owned companies, according to activist groups.

Activists have also called on international energy companies like U.S.-based Chevron to withhold revenues from natural gas projects they operate in Myanmar from the junta-controlled government.

One of Myanmar’s main ethnic minority rebel groups warned of a growing threat of major conflict on Tuesday and called for international intervention against the military crackdown.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; editing by Grant McCool)

Blinken warns entities involved in Nord Stream 2 pipeline to immediately quit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department is tracking efforts to complete Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and evaluating information on entities that appear to be involved, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.

“Any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline,” Blinken said in a statement, adding the Biden administration is committed to complying with 2019 and 2020 legislation with regards to the pipeline and sanctions.

Shortly after Blinken’s statement, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican and an opponent of the pipeline, lifted a hold he had placed on two of President Joe Biden’s nominees, including William Burns for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Nord Stream 2, led by Russia state energy company Gazprom with its Western partners, would double the capacity of an existing link to take Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Biden believes the project is a “bad deal” for Ukraine and Central and Eastern European allies, Blinken said.

The pipeline would bypass Ukraine, likely depriving it of lucrative transit revenues and potentially undermine its efforts against Russian aggression.

Sanctions law that went into effect this year require the State Department to sanction companies that help Nord Stream 2 lay pipeline or provide insurance or certification of its construction. Nearly 20 companies, mostly insurance firms, recently quit the project after Washington warned them in recent months that they could be sanctioned.

Cruz said he would maintain a hold on Wendy Sherman, who Biden has nominated to be the No. 2 official at the State Department until the administration imposes full sanctions on ships and companies involved in the project. Sherman easily passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week and a hold would only likely delay a full Senate vote on her nomination.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Chris Reese)

Iran reacts coolly to U.S. talk offer, demands lifting of sanctions

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will “immediately reverse” actions in its nuclear program once U.S. sanctions are lifted, its foreign minister said on Friday, reacting coolly to Washington’s initial offer to revive talks with Tehran aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.

President Joe Biden’s administration said on Thursday it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord, which aimed to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons while lifting most international sanctions. Former President Donald Trump left the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Tehran said Washington’s move was not enough to persuade Iran to fully respect the accord.

When sanctions are lifted, “we will then immediately reverse all remedial measures. Simple,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter.

Since Trump ditched the deal, Tehran has breached the accord by rebuilding stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, enriching it to higher levels of fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up production.

Tehran and Washington have been at odds over who should make the first step to revive the accord. Iran says the United States must first lift Trump’s sanctions while Washington says Tehran must first return to compliance with the deal.

However, a senior Iranian official told Reuters that Tehran was considering Washington’s offer to talk about the revival of the deal.

“But first they should return to the deal. Then within the framework of the 2015 deal, a mechanism to basically synchronize steps can be discussed,” the official said. “We have never sought nuclear weapons and this is not part of our defense doctrine,” the Iranian official said. “Our message is very clear. Lift all the sanctions and give diplomacy a chance.”

The European Union is working on organizing an informal meeting with all participants of the Iran deal and the United States, which has already signaled willingness to join any gathering, a senior EU official said on Friday.

Adding to pressure for a resolution to the impasse, a law passed by the hardline parliament obliges Tehran on Feb. 23 to cancel the sweeping access given to U.N. inspectors under the deal, limiting their visits to declared nuclear sites only.

The United States and the European parties to the accord have urged Iran to refrain from taking the step, which will complicate Biden’s efforts to restore the pact.

POLITICAL INFIGHTING

“We have to implement the law. The other party must act quickly and lift these unjust and illegal sanctions if they want Tehran to honor the deal,” said the Iranian official.

The IAEA’s short-notice inspections, which can range anywhere beyond Iran’s declared nuclear sites, are mandated under the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” that Iran agreed to honor under the deal.

While Iran’s demand for a lifting of all U.S. sanctions is unlikely to be met anytime soon, analysts said, Tehran faces a delicate choice about how to respond to Biden’s overture with an upcoming presidential election in June.

With growing discontent at home over economic hardship, the election turnout is seen as a referendum on the clerical establishment — a potential risk for Iran’s rulers. Hardliners, set to win the vote and tighten their grip, have been pushing to squeeze more concessions from Washington for reviving the deal.

Iran’s fragile economy, weakened by U.S. sanctions and coronavirus crisis, has left the ruling elite with few options.

“Hardliners are not against dealing with Washington. But their tactic is to stall any engagement to get more concessions until a hardline president is at the office,” said a senior government official.

Some Iranian hardliners said top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tough stance had forced Washington to cave in. On Wednesday he demanded “action, not words” from the United States if it wants to restore the deal.

“They have reversed some measures … It is a defeat for America … but we are waiting to see whether there will be action on lifting sanctions,” state media quoted Tabriz city’s Friday prayer leader Mohammadali Ale-Hashem as saying.

Biden has said that he will use the revival of the nuclear deal as a springboard to a broader agreement that might restrict Iran’s ballistic missile development and regional activities.

Tehran has ruled out negotiations on wider security issues such as Iran’s missile program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry)

U.S. lawmakers ask Blinken for briefing on Nord Stream 2 natgas pipeline

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Several U.S. Representatives on Wednesday raised pressure on the State Department to share plans on potential sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline Russia is racing to finish to take fuel to Europe.

“If completed, Nord Stream 2 would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe,” two Republicans including Michael McCaul, and two Democrats including Marcy Kaptur, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

U.S. representatives and senators have said that the Biden administration has missed a deadline of Feb. 16 to issue Congress a report required by recently passed law on companies helping Russia’s state energy company Gazprom lay pipeline, insure vessels, and certify construction work.

Several companies, including Zurich Insurance Group have already left fearing sanctions and companies listed in report could drop out of the project, making completion difficult.

Nord Stream 2 is more than 90% complete but requires additional tricky work in deep waters of the Baltic Sea off Denmark. The pipeline would bypass Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades, depriving it of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

The representatives asked Blinken for a briefing with State Department officials to inform them of the status of the report and their assessment of possible sanctionable activity of vessels believed to be helping to finish the project.

President Joe Biden believes the $11 billion pipeline, which would double the existing capacity of the Nord Stream system to take gas undersea to Germany, is a “bad deal for Europe” according to his press secretary Jen Psaki.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week that “sanctions are only one” of many tools and that the department will work closely with allies and partners to reinforce European energy security and to safeguard against “predatory behavior”. The department did not immediately respond to a request about the requested briefing.

The representatives said the briefing should include details on “any proposals offered to the Biden administration on the future of the pipeline that aim to persuade the administration to forego or weaken the mandatory sanctions,” apparently referring to any talks between Washington and Germany for a deal on the project.

Gazprom insists the project will be completed in 2021.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Marguerita Choy)