The Biden administration has been quietly negotiating with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear program and free imprisoned Americans, according to officials in three countries, as part of a broader U.S. effort to ease tensions and reduce the risk of a military clash with the Islamic Republic.
The US goal is to reach an informal, unwritten agreement, which some Iranian officials call a « political ceasefire. » It would aim to prevent further escalation in a long-hostile relationship that has grown even more strained as Iran stockpiles highly enriched uranium near bomb-purity, supplies Russia with drones for use in Ukraine and brutally cracks down on political protests. internal.
The broad outlines of the talks were confirmed by three senior Israeli officials, one Iranian official and one US official. US officials would not discuss the detailed efforts to secure the release of the prisoners, beyond calling it an urgent US priority.
The indirect talks, some taking place this spring in the Gulf Arab state of Oman, reflect a resurgence in diplomacy between the United States and Iran after the failure of more than a year of negotiations to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal. That deal sharply limited Iran’s activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
Iran ramped up its nuclear program months after President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the deal and has imposed a series of new sanctions in the country in 2018.
Iran would agree under a new pact — which two Israeli officials have called « imminent » — not to enrich uranium beyond its current production level of 60 percent purity. This is close to but below the 90 percent purity needed to fashion a nuclear weapon, a level the United States has warned would force a harsh response.
Iran will also halt lethal attacks on American contractors in Syria and Iraq by its proxies in the region, expand its cooperation with international nuclear inspectors and refrain from selling ballistic missiles to Russia, Iranian officials said.
In return, Iran would expect the United States to avoid tightening the sanctions already choking its economy; not to seize foreign tankers loaded with oil, as happened recently in April; and not to ask for new punitive resolutions from the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency against Iran for its nuclear activity.
« None of this is aimed at reaching a revolutionary agreement, » said Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization. Instead, he said, the goal is « to curb any activity that substantially crosses a red line or puts either party in a position to retaliate in a way that destabilizes the status quo. »
« The goal is to stabilize tensions, create time and space to discuss future diplomacy and the nuclear deal, » Vaez said.
Iran also expects the United States to release billions of dollars in Iranian assets, the use of which is said to be limited to humanitarian purposes, in exchange for the release of three Iranian American prisoners whom the United States says are being held wrongfully. US officials have not confirmed such a link between the prisoners and the money, nor any link between the prisoners and nuclear issues.
In what could be a sign of a developing deal, the United States last week issued a waiver that allows Iraq to pay off $2.76 billion in energy debts to Iran. The money would be limited to use by US-approved third-party suppliers for food and medicine for Iranian citizens, according to the State Department.
That could allay concerns that the Biden administration is putting billions into the hands of a ruthless authoritarian regime that is killing protesters, supporting Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, and funding anti-Israel proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. Republicans hammered the Obama administration for releasing billions in frozen Iranian cash, which they said would help subsidize terrorist activities.
Iranian officials are also seeking to claim payments for oil purchases worth an estimated $7 billion held in South Korea that they have linked to the release of American prisoners. That money, too, would be restricted for humanitarian use and held in a Qatari bank, according to an Iranian official and several other people familiar with the negotiations.
The renewed US focus on Iran’s nuclear program comes amid growing concern within the Biden administration that Tehran could precipitate a crisis by further ramping up its uranium enrichment.
« It seems like the US is making it clear to Iran that if you go 90 percent, you’re going to pay a hell of a price, » said Dennis Ross, who has helped craft Middle East policy for several US presidents. Mr. Ross spoke from Israel, where he had met with security officials familiar with the recent talks.
At the same time, Ross said, the Biden administration has no desire for a new crisis. “They want the priority and focus to remain on Ukraine and Russia,” she said. « Having a war in the Middle East, where you know how it starts but you don’t know how it ends, is the last thing they want. »
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matt Miller said « rumors about a nuclear deal — interim or otherwise — are false or misleading. »
« Our No. 1 policy is to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, so obviously we’ve been watching Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities, » Miller added. « We believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this, but we are preparing for all possible options and contingencies. »
America’s denial of a pending « nuclear deal » may hinge on the semantics, however, whether the outcome equates to the informal understanding described by multiple officials. Such an agreement would also avoid the need for approval by a US Congress deeply hostile to Iran.
In an unexpected rhetorical shift, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday he could approve a deal with the West if Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was kept intact, according to state media reports. Khamenei also said Iran should maintain at least some cooperation with international nuclear inspectors.
Israel has warned that Iran could suffer dire consequences from producing bomb-worthy uranium. « If Iran were to enrich itself up to 90% in armaments, it would be a serious mistake and the price would be high, » said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. said in May.
Even if Iran were to use its high-speed centrifuges to purify uranium to a level suitable for making a nuclear weapon, it would still take time to build such a bomb. In March, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, he told a House subcommittee that process may take « several months ».
« The US military has developed multiple options that our national leadership must consider if or when Iran decides to develop a nuclear weapon, » Gen. Milley added.
A senior Israeli defense official said Israel estimated it would take Iran much longer – at least a year and possibly more than two years – to make a bomb and said Mr Milley’s comments reflected an American effort to convey the urgent need to reach a new agreement with Tehran as soon as possible.
Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, despite evidence that it has been researching nuclear military capabilities.
The Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach with Iran resumed late last year with US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley holding two meetings with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations United, Amir Saeid Iravani, according to people familiar with the meetings. In early May, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk traveled to Oman for indirect Omani-brokered talks with an Iranian delegation that included Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, he confirmed on Monday. the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
During negotiations to reinstate the 2015 deal, Iran declined to meet directly with US officials.
In a statement to the New York Times, Iran’s mission to the United Nations declined to address details of the talks, but said « it is important to create a new atmosphere and get out of the current situation. »
The renewed talks have unsettled some Israeli officials, who fear the implementation of new deals could reduce Western economic pressure on Iran and even lead to a broader nuclear deal that Israel fears could throw a lifeline to the economy. of Tehran without sufficiently derailing its nuclear activities.
Mr Ross said a modest deal to avert the crisis could be helpful, but only if it was limited in time. Iran is building new underground facilities, he noted, that could likely withstand American anti-bunker bombs currently threatening its existing nuclear sites.
« The more they tighten up, the more the military options lose their effectiveness, » Ross said. « Buying time from that point of view works for Iranians. »