Iran nuclear deal close, US officials say

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US negotiators say they feel they are close to finalizing a nuclear agreement with Iran for the first time in a decade.

“For the first time in nearly a decade we are getting close to [reaching agreement on] the first step towards a comprehensive agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and put time on the clock to reach a negotiated agreement that addresses all of our concerns,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists at a background briefing at the State Department Friday.

“I don’t know if we will get agreement,” in Geneva next week, the U.S. official said. “It’s quite possible we can. But there are tough issues to negotiate.” The reason the last meeting ended in Geneva at 1am last weekend was that Iran, after receiving the consensus P5+1 draft proposal only late in the evening of November 9th, “felt it needed to look at the document and come back to the negotiations.”

Under the P5+1 proposed deal that six world powers and Iran will meet again to discuss next week in Geneva (November 20-22), Iran would agree to halt the expansion of its nuclear program for six months. Among the measures the first phase would address: suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize the 20% stockpile, hold steady the stockpile of 3.5% enrichment by oxidizing any more accrued, not install more centrifuges and not operate ones already installed but not yet enriching, including the more advanced IR-2Ms; stop building fuel assemblies for the unfinished Arak heavy water facility, and allow increased inspections and monitoring at enrichment facilities, for a period of six months, according to press reports and what sources familiar with the deal under discussion told Al-Monitor. US officials briefing Friday would not confirm the details of the P5+1 proposal.

In exchange, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including about $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad that would be metered out each month depending on compliance, as well as the suspension of sanctions on auto sales, petrochemicals, gold and precious metals, as well as aircraft parts, sources said.

During the six month first phase, negotiators would then seek to reach a comprehensive agreement under which all of the outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program would be addressed, in exchange for the lifting of proliferation related samctions, including on oil exports and those restricting Iran’s access to the international banking system. Iran also seeks language in the accord that would permit it to pursue domestic enrichment for a verifiably peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program as part of an end state deal.

The agreement would provide “unprecedented monitoring and verification” of Iran’s nuclear program, the senior U.S. official said. “The voluntary steps [in the first phase proposal] are good things in and of themselves. But the objective is to reach a comprehensive agreement that puts time on the clock, extends breakout time, shortens the time it would take to detect [breakout], and make the world, the US and Israel more secure.”

The US official acknowledged that Israel strongly opposes a confidence building step that would provide Iran any sanctions relief, even one that would by some estimates double Iran’s nuclear breakout time in the first phase alone.

“When it comes to our Israeli friends, and Israel’s security is foremost for us, it is worth noting we share exactly the same objective,” that Iran should not produce a nuclear weapon, the US official said. “We both believe diplomacy should be given a chance, but we diverge on tactical [steps]. We believe there should be a first step. We completely share Israel’s desire for a comprehensive agreement. But we don’t think it’s possible” without a first-step agreement.

“We think keeping the pressure on Iran is critical, and we are not asking Congress to lift sanctions,” the US official said. “We are asking Congress to take a pause” in adding new ones. “We need to see if they [the Iranians] are serious. If it appears they are not, [or] if they don’t comply, Congress can put new sanctions on in a nanosecond.”

The official said she doesn’t know if the administration’s appeal to Congress to pause new sanctions through the end of the year will succeed, or if the Senate, pressed by Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups, would move new Iran sanctions legislation in the Banking committee or to attach to the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Where Israel is concerned, I have tremendous respect for the prime minister [Netanyahu] and…I understand he will say or do what he needs to do,” the US official said. “We may not see eye to eye tactically, but we stand shoulder to shoulder in ensuring Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. The President [Obama] has done more to ensure Israel’s security than any other president. We have a close bond. I expect we’ll get through this.”