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.
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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.
As the contours of an agreement took shape earlier this month, Kerry cut short a visit to the Middle East and, in dramatic fashion, joined talks in Geneva. He was soon followed by his counterparts from the P5+1. American officials denied reports that internal divisions among the negotiating group ultimately scuttled a deal, but acknowledged that the proposal that emerged by the end of that round was "stronger."
In the end, they said, Iran decided it needed to return to Tehran for further consultations.
But this time, all sides appear eager to strike a deal.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters last Friday on the condition of anonymity due to diplomatic sensitivities, said an agreement this week is "quite possible."
That was quickly echoed by the other members of the P5+1.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Monday and, according to a Kremlin statement, said he believes there is a "real chance" to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
In another call on Tuesday, China's President Xi Jinping urged President Rouhani to cut a deal. And in the first such high level contact in a decade, British Prime Minister David Cameron also spoke by phone with Rouhani on Tuesday.
Iranian leaders have also voiced their optimism. American officials believe that President Rouhani, who was elected earlier this year promising Iranians relief from the stiff sanctions which have hammered the Iranian economy, has been given a mandate by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to negotiate in earnest for the first time in about a decade.
U.S. officials rejected criticism that they are rushing into a deal, but acknowledged that they may have a limited window to make progress. Israel has warned that if Iran's nuclear program reaches a certain capacity it may have to react militarily. Many in Congress are urging new sanctions, something the Obama administration fears would destroy "good faith" established during the talks.
On Tuesday, Obama met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, urging them to hold off on ratcheting up sanctions. The group ultimately agreed to wait until next week before considering further pressure, but other senators pushed ahead. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., introduced an amendment to a military funding bill that would target Iran's remaining oil trade.
Israel's Netanyahu remains staunchly opposed to any deal with Iran. Israel has dispatched allies to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers to push for sanctions. Netanyahu hosted French President Francois Hollande last week, courting the member of the P5+1 that reportedly demanded stiffer terms to the deal earlier this month. Today, Netanyahu travels to Russia where he is expected to make his case to President Putin.