After coming tantalizing close to a landmark agreement earlier this month, the Obama administration and its partners will sit down with Iran again this week and hope to cut a deal to roll back the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
The deal, which U.S. officials insist on calling just a first step, would temporarily roll back Iran's nuclear program in exchange for a modest easing of financial sanctions. They hope such a deal would buy time for a comprehensive agreement to be reached next year that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in exchange for further relief from crippling sanctions.
According to U.S. officials, the agreement would play out over about six months and include a freeze of certain higher levels of uranium enrichment which produces fuel that, if Iran decided to race for a nuclear weapon, could be further enriched for use in a bomb. It would also provide for increased monitoring at Iran's nuclear facilities and deal with Iran's existing stockpiles of enriched uranium.
In exchange, the officials said, the United States and its partners would allow Iran access to some of its frozen funds overseas. The money would be released in increments over several months to ensure Iranian compliance with the agreement. The officials declined to say how much would be released, but suggested that Iran would receive less each month than the $5 billion they currently loses monthly due to oil and gas sanctions.
A potential deal could also allow Iran to do business with petrochemicals. But a U.S. official stressed such a provision would be less of a concession than it appears because it would take time for this business to restart, delaying any immediate income for Iran.
U.S. officials said the larger sanctions on oil and gas exports would remain in place, as would sanctions on Iranian banks and certain officials, as well as the American trade embargo.
Potential stumbling blocks still remain, including Iran's desire that any deal recognize its "right" to enrich uranium. The United States says no such right exists in international law, but a senior administration sounded optimistic the issue could be resolved.
"I think there is a way to navigate that," the official told reporters.
The two sides also have disagreements over whether monitors would have access to Iran's military facilities, where nuclear research is believed to have taken place.
Talks begin today in Geneva between Iran and members of the so-called P5+1, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, which have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program since 2006.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will begin the discussions with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, followed by more meetings in various configurations over the coming days. U.S. officials say that, if an agreement appears imminent, Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to fly in to close the deal.
This is the second round of talks with Iran this month, the third in five weeks. By all accounts, they came very close to a deal last time.