VIENNA — World powers and Iran have reached a tentative agreement on sanctions relief for the Islamic republic, among the most contentious issues in a long-term nuclear agreement that negotiators hope to clinch over the next several days, diplomats said Saturday.
The annex crafted by experts, one of five meant to accompany the agreement, outlines which US and international sanctions will be lifted and how quickly. Diplomats said senior officials of the seven-nation talks, which include Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, still had to sign off on the package.
Still, the word of significant progress indicated the sides were moving closer to a comprehensive accord that would set a decade of restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in economic benefits for the Iranians.
Officials had described sanctions relief as one of the thorniest disagreements between Iran and the United States, which has led the international pressure campaign against Iran’s economy. The United States and much of the world fears Iran’s enrichment of uranium and other activity could be designed to make nuclear weapons; Iran says its program is meant to generate power and for other peaceful purposes.
The diplomats, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on last week’s confidential negotiations in Vienna, said the sanctions annex was completed by experts from Iran and the six world powers it is negotiating with: the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. They did not provide details of the agreement.
A senior US official did not dispute the diplomats’ account but said work remained to be done on the side agreement before the issue could be described as finalized.
Negotiators are striving to wrap up the deal by Tuesday.
Also Saturday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that, with Iranian cooperation, his agency could complete an assessment on the nation’s suspected past nuclear work by December, potentially removing another major obstacle to an agreement.
With his statement, Yukiya Amano, director general of the agency, appeared to be signaling that a preliminary investigation into the “possible military dimensions’’ of Iran’s past nuclear work could happen on an expedited basis, a schedule that could facilitate the lifting of sanctions on Iran.
He made the statement a day after returning to Vienna from Tehran, where he met with President Hassan Rouhani and other top officials.
“With the cooperation from Iran, I think we can issue a report by the end of the year on the assessment of the clarification of the issues related to possible military dimensions,” said Amano, a cautious diplomat who weighs his words carefully. “We have made progress on the way forward.”
Over the past eight years, the IAEA has had three different agreements with Iran to resolve evidence that scientists may have worked on the design of trigger mechanisms used in nuclear weapons, reentry vehicles that could protect a nuclear warhead, and a variety of related technologies.
In 2011, the agency published a list of a dozen questions, but it has barely made a dent in answering them. Iran has contended that the documents the agency is relying on are fabrications, provided by the United States and Israel, and has declined to cooperate with the IAEA inquiry.
It is doubtful that the agency can fully resolve those issues by the end of the year. But US officials have been suggesting that if agency inspectors can get access to Iranian scientists, documents, and some sites to resolve suspicions, the sanctions could begin to lift even before the agency reaches its final conclusions.
The nuclear talks have moved into high gear with negotiators trying to reach an agreement by Tuesday. If they hit that target date, the agreement could be submitted to Congress by Thursday, limiting the congressional review period to 30 days.