November 7, 2013 4:11 am

US seeks ‘first step’ nuclear deal with Iran

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Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran©AP

The reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran

The US is looking to negotiate a “first step” deal with Iran which would halt parts of its nuclear programme in return for modest suspension of sanctions, a senior US official said on Wednesday ahead of a crucial new round of talks.

The initial agreement could last for six months and would “put time on the clock” in order to allow for a more detailed negotiation about Iran’s nuclear programme.

The administration official also warned that any effort by the US Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran could scupper the negotiations.

“For the first time, Iran appears to be committed to moving this negotiating process forward quickly,” the US official said. “We do not see them using the negotiating process to buy time.”

US officials said that many of the details of this first stage deal with Iran had been discussed and suggested that some form of agreement could be reached this week.

Together with five other world powers, the US will resume talks on Thursday with Iran in Geneva over its nuclear programme, which some observers in the west believe is getting close to the point where Iran could quickly push towards a nuclear bomb.

Diplomacy with Iran has been given a new lease of life by the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic insider who has pursued an unprecedented outreach towards the US. The Obama administration believes the election of Mr Rouhani has created the best opportunity in years to reach a diplomatic agreement with Tehran. The US is joined in the talks by the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China.

“Put simply, what we’re looking for now is a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear programme from moving forward for the first time in decades, and that potentially rolls part of it back,” the senior administration official said.

“We’re trying to stop Iran’s programme from advancing, to put time on the clock to negotiate a complete and comprehensive agreement. It seems to me it’s worth a brief pause to test that notion.”

The US would be “prepared to offer limited, targeted, and reversible sanctions relief”, the official said, although any initial agreement would not touch “the core architecture of the Iranian sanctions regime”. The official gave no details about which sanctions might be suspended.

Iran also sounded an optimistic note about the talks this week, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying that some sort of deal was “not that far off”.

“We can conclude [a deal] this week in Geneva, and if that’s not the case, it’s not a disaster, as long as things are moving forward,” he said in an interview with Le Monde.

The upbeat tone of the Obama administration is not shared by many in the US Congress, where there is strong pressure to impose new sanctions on Iran. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would place further restrictions on Iran’s ability to export oil and the Senate is analysing whether to move forward with a version of the same legislation.

The US official said that the administration had asked Congress to “pause” over any new sanctions legislation. “If there is only a 10 per cent chance that additional sanctions would put at risk those negotiations – and quite frankly, we believe it’s higher than 10 per cent – we all have an obligation not to take the risk,” the official said. “The potential consequences are very high and the alternatives far less attractive, and most importantly, far less effective options.”

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