GENEVA — On the eve of a new round of talks between world powers and Iran, a senior Obama administration official said Wednesday that the United States was prepared to offer Iran limited relief from economic sanctions if Tehran agreed to halt its nuclear program temporarily and reversed part of it.
The official said that the suspension of Iran’s nuclear efforts, perhaps for six months, would give negotiators time to pursue a comprehensive and far more challenging agreement.
“Put simply, what we’re looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward for the first time in decades and that potentially rolls part of it back,” the official told reporters.
The long-stymied talks with Iran were re-energized after Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian president, took office in August and declared that he wanted to resolve longstanding concerns about the country’s nuclear program so that punishing economic sanctions could be lifted.
But while the atmospherics in the talks have improved, administration officials are concerned that the window for negotiations may close if some way is not found to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. Some experts say it has already advanced to the point that it has the technological capability to make a bomb.
Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview that Iran had the technical know-how and sufficient quantities of uranium enriched to 20 percent to produce a crude nuclear explosive in two or three months if it made the political decision to become a nuclear weapons state. It would take considerably longer for Iran to develop the means of delivering such an explosive by a ballistic missile, he added, but the nuclear threshold would have been crossed.
At the same time, American lawmakers have reacted to advances in Iran’s program by considering the imposition of even tougher economic sanctions, which Obama administration officials fear might harm the climate for negotiations.
“We’re looking for ways to put additional time on the clock,” said the administration official, who declined to be identified publicly under the administration’s diplomatic protocol for briefing reporters.
American officials would not provide details of the steps they wanted Iran to take to halt its nuclear program. But the administration official said such steps would cover the level of enrichment, Iran’s stockpiles of nuclear material and the capabilities of Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as verification. Just how long the suspension would last also remains to be negotiated, but six months is one time frame that has been discussed.
“In response to a first step agreed to by Iran that halts their program from advancing further, we are prepared to offer limited, targeted and reversible sanctions relief,” the administration official said, without specifying what sanctions might be eased.
American officials have said that they want to keep core oil and banking sanctions in place until there is a comprehensive agreement. The degree of relief the administration would provide for a “first step” would depend on the nuclear constraints Iran was willing to accept, officials said.
One form of relief, American officials have suggested in recent weeks, might be unfreezing Iranian assets overseas and releasing them in phases. That would allow the White House flexibility in rewarding Iran and would avoid the risks of repealing more substantial sanctions.
If Iran violated the terms of a “first step” understanding or if a comprehensive agreement could not be reached, the sanctions could be reimposed.
Iran and international negotiators are to resume two days of talks here on Thursday. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but many experts say it is a guise for developing the ability to make nuclear weapons. Some possible constraints and forms of sanctions relief were discussed with Iranian officials last month, the administration official said.
The world powers involved in the talks with Iran are known as the P5-plus-1 countries, so called because they include the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany. The American delegation is being led by Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs.
Whether the limited sanctions relief the United States is prepared to offer will persuade Iran to suspend its program is unclear.
“I think the P5-plus-1 ought to go in with as robust a sanctions relief package as they can in order to get the maximum amount out of the Iranians in terms of slowing down and fencing in enrichment,” Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador and under secretary of state who has been a strong advocate of negotiations with Iran, said in a recent interview.
American officials describe the initial understanding they are seeking with Iran as “a first step,” not an interim agreement, because they said it should be a move toward a more sweeping agreement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has argued against a “partial deal,” which would raise the diplomatic and political cost for the White House if it appeared to be willing to settle for an interim accord with Tehran.
Iranian officials have publicly encouraged the hope that a breakthrough might be near, perhaps calculating that it will encourage Western concessions.
The administration official was more cautious about what might be achieved this week but also suggested that an initial understanding might be within reach.
“I do see the potential for the outlines of a first step,” the official said. “I do think it can be written on a piece of paper, probably more than one.”
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