The United States is discussing a range of ideas on how to revive the Iran nuclear deal, including an option in which the two sides take small steps without a full commitment to buy time, three sources familiar with the matter said.
Such a moderate approach could slow the deterioration of relations since former US President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and stop Iran’s subsequent violations that brought it closer to the level of uranium enrichment for use in weapons.
This option may involve Washington providing economic concessions to Tehran worth less than the sanctions relief stipulated in the 2015 agreement in exchange for Iran halting or perhaps reversing its violations of the agreement.
The sources emphasized that US President Joe Biden has not decided his policy yet.
His stated position remains that Iran will resume full compliance with the agreement before the United States does so.
“They are really thinking,” said one of the sources familiar with the US review.
He added that the ideas they are studying include a direct return to the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 and what he called “less versus less” as an interim step.
Another source said that if the Biden administration concludes that negotiating a full return to the agreement will take a long time, it may adopt a more moderate approach.
And this source added, “Should they try to ease at least some of the sanctions imposed on Iran and persuade it to agree to stop and perhaps backtrack on some of its nuclear (steps)?”
The agreement between Iran and six major powers curtailed Tehran’s uranium enrichment activity, making it difficult for it to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from US and other sanctions. Iran has long denied it is seeking nuclear weapons.
When Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying he had failed to curb Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support its proxies in the region, he re-imposed stifling sanctions on the Iranian economy.
In response, Tehran violated the agreement’s main restrictions, by enriching uranium to a purity of 20 percent, which exceeds the agreement’s limit of 3.67 percent, but is less than the 90 percent needed to make weapons.
It also increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and used sophisticated centrifuges.
The main problem in reviving the deal is who starts first. Iran insisted that the United States ease sanctions before resuming compliance with the agreement, and Washington wants the opposite.
And in what may be an indication of the position of each party, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that Tehran’s “final and irreversible” decision is that it will not return to compliance with the agreement unless Washington lifts the sanctions, while Biden said he would not lift the sanctions just for Iran return to the negotiating table.
Republicans would likely criticize Biden, a Democrat, if he offered Iran any sanctions relief without a full return to the deal, and they would argue that this would waste the leverage Trump has gained by imposing dozens of sanctions since 2018.
“The Biden administration should understand the facts of 2021, not 2015.
This means there is no prior easing of sanctions on a regime that has expanded its dangerous behavior,” Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Washington may find other ways to ease Iran’s economic pain, pave the way for the International Monetary Fund to lend to Tehran, facilitate the arrival of humanitarian goods, or adopt a European idea of a credit facility.
A Western diplomat said a loan from the International Monetary Fund “could certainly be effective” and described the possibility of providing a European credit facility to Iran as “reasonable and feasible” but that it required tacit acceptance from the United States.
The White House declined to comment, apart from a statement by spokeswoman Jane Sacchi, who said that if Tehran resumed compliance, Washington would do so and that “the ball is in Iran’s court”.
A State Department spokeswoman, who asked not to be named, said the Biden administration was still consulting Congress as well as allies and partners.
She added, “We are studying a set of ideas that are consistent with our stated policy of preparing to return to compliance with the agreement if Iran does so,” without going into details.
It was not clear when the Biden administration would reach its vision.
There is a deadline on February 21, when Iranian law requires Tehran to end the sweeping inspection powers granted to the International Atomic Energy Agency under the 2015 deal and restrict inspections to only declared nuclear sites.
Three European diplomats said even the opportunity for an interim solution could be quickly lost before Iran’s June presidential election.
The anti-American hawk is expected to win this election.
“It’s an urgent situation,” one of them said.
“If we cannot seize the opportunity now, it is very difficult to think that we will be able to enter into substantive negotiations before the fall… the current (nuclear) path may close many doors”.