The US Treasury Department said Thursday it was lifting sanctions against three former Iranian officials and two companies, in a move “unrelated” to ongoing talks on the nuclear deal in Vienna.

At the same time, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on a Yemeni network it says is cooperating with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to illegally transfer tens of millions of dollars to Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The State and Treasury Departments announced the two measures in simultaneous statements that come as the administration attempts to both strike a deal bringing the United States and Iran back to a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, and to push Yemeni rebels linked to Iran into peace talks for the Yemen war.

A State Department spokesperson insisted the lifting of sanctions was unrelated to negotiations in Vienna, which are expected to resume this weekend.

“There is no connection, there is no connection with the withdrawals that we announced today at the JCPOA or with the negotiations underway in Vienna,” Ned Price told reporters. However, he was unable to provide a full explanation of the reasons for the move, other than it was done in response to a petition for the removals.

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“These petitions are being looked at very carefully,” he said. “They are verified by experts to ensure that the information put forward is factual, that it is correct, and it is only after verifying the information put forward in the petitions that we will undertake a delisting.” In the case of these three people, it is the result of our ability to verify that there has been a change in status or a change in behavior that allowed us to proceed with this delisting.

In this file photo taken on March 31, 2021, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC (Carolyn Kaster / POOL / AFP)

Price added that this step demonstrates “our commitment to lift sanctions in the event of a change in the status or behavior of those sanctioned.” He said the practice is “consistent with good sanitation of sanctions and administrative processes.”

Still, he couldn’t say what the “change of status” or “change of behavior” had been, and Iran’s national oil company, NIOC, and a number of other subsidiaries remain under US sanctions. Sanctions have been removed in the past because a target has died, retired or left office, but there is no indication that this has happened.

Critics of the nuclear deal and the administration’s intention to revert to it immediately denounced the lifting of sanctions as a concession in the absence of anything in return from Iran, and while Tehran continues to ignore requests from the UN atomic watchdog to explain elements of its nuclear deal program.

“Biden administration should not offer sanctions relief to Iran at a time when Tehran refuses to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into its nuclear program,” Andrea said Stricker, researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Unfortunately, the United States has just signaled that it is giving up on sanctions relief and the IAEA investigation even before an agreement is reached. Iran is sure to seize this concession and try to get more of it.

The sanctions against Ahmad Ghalebani, director general of NIOC, two directors of NIOC subsidiaries, and these companies were imposed in 2013 by the Obama administration.

The 2015 agreement with the world powers allowed it to resell crude on the international market. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal in 2018, leading Iran to smuggle its oil overseas and sell it.

The deal is based on Iran limiting the development of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against Iran by the United States and others. Ongoing talks in Vienna have focused in part on the timing of the lifting of US sanctions and the return of the Iranians to compliance with the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Illustration: An Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat moves through the Persian Gulf as an oil tanker is seen in the background, July 2, 2012. (AP Photo / Vahid Salemi, File)

In a report published in March that cited U.S. and Middle Eastern officials, the Wall Street Journal said Israel had targeted at least a dozen ships bound for Syria and mainly carrying Iranian oil since late 2019.

Israel sought to stop the oil trade because it believed the profits were funding regional extremists, according to the report.

In Thursday’s announcements, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the money flowing through the alleged Houthi funding network came from sales of Iranian oil and other commodities across the Middle East.

International officials and analysts say Iran has stepped up its material support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels as the war in the Arab nation passes the six-year mark. A Saudi-led coalition tries to push back the Houthis, who have captured the country’s capital and are now leading an offensive to capture a major northern city, in defiance of US and UN calls for a ceasefire -fire.

The new US action names 11 Yemeni individuals, alleged shell and middleman companies and ships involved in what it called illicit transfers.

Among the 11 people were Jami ” Ali Muhammad, a Houthis and a suspected IRGC associate who the United States said helped “procure ships, facilitate fuel shipments and transfer funds to the benefit of the Houthis ”.

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