The United States and its allies are close to reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, officials say

WASHINGTON — The United States and its European allies appear poised to restore the deal that limited Iran’s nuclear program, Biden administration officials said Monday, but warned it was now up to the new government to Tehran to decide whether, after months of negotiations, it is ready to dismantle much of its nuclear production equipment in exchange for sanctions relief.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, a senior State Department official reported that the negotiations had reached a point where political leaders had to decide whether they would agree to key elements of a deal that would essentially amount to the 2015 that President Donald J. Trump rejected four years ago, despite the objections of many of his top advisers. Ultimately, this allowed Iran to resume nuclear production, in some cases enriching nuclear fuel to levels much closer to what is needed to make nuclear weapons.

Administration officials warned that it was unclear whether a final deal would be reached and that in Iran that decision would rest with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And while some remain deeply skeptical that Iran will ultimately agree to the terms being discussed, the State Department official said “we can see a path to an agreement if these decisions are made and if they are taken quickly”.

“Now is the time for Iran to decide whether it is ready to make these decisions,” the official said. A second senior administration official also said the talks had reached the decision-making stage. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.

For President Biden, reinstating the deal — and with it, Iran’s production capacity limits — would fulfill a major campaign promise and seal a breach created by Mr. Trump with Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, which participated in the initial agreement with Russia and China. But it also comes with significant political risks.

No Republicans voted for the deal in 2015, and its restoration would almost certainly become a campaign issue in the midterm elections. Like the original deal, the new one would not limit Iran’s missile development, the senior official said. Nor would it end Tehran’s support for terror groups or its proxy forces, which have been stirring up unrest in the Middle East, as some Democrats and nearly all Republicans have demanded.

Despite these shortcomings, Mr. Biden is ready to return to the 2015 agreement and “make the political decisions necessary to achieve this goal,” the senior State Department official said.

And although US officials have not provided any details, a clean restoration of the old agreement would mean that all limits on Iran’s nuclear material production would still expire in 2030. Last year, the secretary of State Antony J. Blinken promised that after reinstating the old agreement, the United States would seek one that was “longer and stronger.” But Iranian officials rejected this idea.

The State Department official said negotiations to reinstate the 2015 agreement were “in the final stretch” and that “all parties” must commit to returning to full compliance. In fact, the US first violated the original agreement, when it pulled out and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Mr. Trump then added hundreds of additional sanctions, and it’s unclear how the ongoing negotiation would deal with those.

In Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, former head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization and a key player in the initial negotiations, told an energy conference that “it looks like the nuclear negotiations will reach the end result we have in mind”. according to Iranian media.

After nearly two years of trying to persuade European leaders to counter US sanctions, Iran has begun to violate the accord, denying inspectors access to key facilities and accelerating its nuclear enrichment.

Although it has not amassed the same volume of enriched uranium as before the 2015 deal, it has purified some of its new stockpile to a level of 60%, closer to 90% enrichment. used to produce nuclear weapons. Previously, Iran had capped its enrichment at 20%.

“A country that gets 60% richer is a very serious thing,” said Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body that inspects nuclear production facilities. Iran and verifies compliance with the agreements. “Only countries that manufacture bombs reach this level.”

Iran had resisted the elimination of this 60% enriched fuel. It is unclear how it would be disposed of, or if it would simply be moved to another country, possibly Russia, which took the previous stockpile from Iran.

When Mr Trump walked out of the original deal in 2018 – which he called “the worst deal ever” – he promised to force Tehran into new negotiations, saying he would get better terms and also put an end to the country’s support for the Syrian regime, its financing of terrorist groups and its missile tests. But he never brought them back to the negotiating table.

Instead, Iran has doubled down on its nuclear and military activities in the region and evaded sanctions by smuggling oil to key buyers – including China – to keep its economy afloat until the Trump administration leaves office.

President Ebrahim Raisi’s new government has scorned its predecessors, accusing them of failing to lift sanctions even after Iran shipped 97% of its nuclear fuel out of the country. And for months he left US negotiators – whom he declined to meet directly – hanging in the balance, unsure whether the new leadership would even attempt to piece together the old arrangement. Over time, however, economic pressures on Iran have accumulated.

Still, the return to the deal is sure to anger hard-liners in Iran who have warned the United States could back out again when Mr Biden is no longer president. They asked for written assurance that the United States would never leave the arrangement, which Mr Biden said he could not provide.

Perhaps Mr. Biden’s greatest political vulnerability now is that by restoring the old arrangement, he is buying an eight-year reprieve at best.

“You stop the progress of the program; you buy time to deal with what is an issue that is deferred,” said Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East negotiator who oversaw Iran policy in the White House during the Obama administration. “It’s not going away – it’s postponed.”

However, said Mr Ross, the agreement helps to avoid a nuclear arms race in the region.

A key question is how Israel will react. He continued his campaign of sabotage against Iranian facilities, blowing up some of them and, at the end of the Trump administration, assassinating the scientist who ran what US and Israeli intelligence believe was the project. design of Iran bombs. But no intelligence agency has provided public evidence that the project has resumed in any meaningful way since its suspension in 2003.

The United States and Iran also appear set to strike a prisoner swap deal to free four American citizens in exchange for Iranians convicted of sanctions violations, according to two people familiar with the talks. The senior State Department official said he could not consider a deal with Iran unless the Americans were released, and Iran’s Foreign Ministry later said it would be open to an exchange of prisoners with the United States.

On Monday, ardent critics of the 2015 deal — and by extension its return — vowed to rescind it when a Republican president returns to the White House.

“Any nuclear deal will allow Iran to tread patient paths to nuclear weapons as key restrictions expire and tens of billions of dollars pour into the regime’s coffers to fund its destructive activities,” said Mark Dubowitz. , CEO of the Defense Foundation. of Democracies, a Washington think tank, which has worked with multiple administrations on Iran policy.

“When power shifts in Washington, Republicans will reimpose all sanctions again and pull America out of what they see as a fatally flawed deal,” he said.

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