US, Iran discuss ‘agreement’ to deescalate tensions 2023

Iranian and Western officials say they are having discussions with Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program, release certain US nationals, and unfreeze some Iranian assets overseas.

These measures would be presented as a “understanding” rather than an agreement needing US Congress scrutiny, where many oppose handing Iran advantages due to its military help to Russia, domestic repression, and backing for proxies who have attacked US interests in the area.

After failing to resurrect a 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, Washington aims to restrain Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon that might threaten Israel and start a regional arms race. Tehran denies wanting nuclear weapons.

Tehran has exceeded the 2015 pact, which then-President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, which limited its uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent purity and its stockpile to 202.8 kg (447 pounds).

Since indirect US-Iranian negotiations collapsed, US and European authorities have sought measures to limit Tehran’s nuclear activities. Restarting talks shows Western countries’ growing concern over Iran’s program.

The US administration has carefully denied allegations it is seeking an interim accord, leaving open the potential of a less formal “understanding” that might skirt congressional oversight.

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller rejected an Iran deal.

He said Washington wants Tehran to de-escalate tensions, curtail its nuclear program, stop supporting regional proxy groups that attack, stop supporting Russia’s conflict on Ukraine, and free jailed US nationals.

“We continue to use diplomatic engagements to pursue all of these goals,” he continued without elaborating.

An Iranian official stated, “Call it whatever you want, whether a temporary deal, an interim deal, or a mutual understanding – both sides want to prevent further escalation.”

He stated “that will involve prisoner exchange and unblocking part of Iran’s frozen assets” first.

He suggested US sanctions exemptions for Iran to sell oil in exchange for suspending 60% uranium enrichment and cooperating with the UN nuclear monitor.

Cooling off

“I’d call it a cooling-down understanding,” said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity after many rounds of indirect discussions in Oman between US National Security Council staffer Brett McGurk and Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani.

After months of no interaction, US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley visited Iran’s UN envoy.

The Western official said the goal was to create a status quo acceptable to everyone by persuading Iran to avoid the Western redline of enriching to 90 percent purity, considered weapons grade, and potentially even “pause” its enrichment at 60 percent.

The person said both parties are proposing a 60% delay, increased Iranian collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and not installing more sophisticated centrifuges in exchange for the “substantial transfer” of Iranian cash kept overseas.

The official did not explain whether the delay meant Iran would stop enriching to 60% or not enrich over 60%.

Avoiding Iran-Israel conflict

The actions’ sequence and relationship to Iran’s release of three US citizens remained unclear. They may be released with frozen funds, officials have suggested.

On Monday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman indicated there were intermediary talks about exchanging inmates if Washington showed goodwill. Iran’s UN mission didn’t reply to a specific request for comment.

The Western official said the US goal was to prevent the nuclear crisis from escalating and avoid an Israel-Iran conflict.

“If (the) Iranians miscalculate, the potential for a strong Israeli response is something that we want to avoid,” he added.

US officials avoid using the word “agreement” because of a 2015 statute that requires Congress to get the text of any Iran nuclear treaty, allowing legislators to evaluate and vote on it.

On Thursday, Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul wrote to President Joe Biden that “any arrangement or understanding with Iran, even informal, requires submission to Congress”.

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