The US may think about small steps to revive the Iranian nuclear deal
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant 250 km south of the Iranian capital Tehran
By Arshad Mohammed and John Irish
WASHINGTON / PARIS (Reuters) – The United States is weighing a variety of ideas to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, including an option where both sides would take small steps not to fully respect the time, three said with the matter.
Such a humble approach could slow the deterioration in relations since former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018 and froze Iran's subsequent violations, moving it closer to weapon-grade uranium enrichment.
That option could result in Washington allowing Tehran to reap economic benefits less than the sanction relief it received under the 2015 agreement in exchange for Iran stopping or breaking its own violations of the agreement possibly undone.
The sources stressed that US President Joe Biden has not yet decided his policy. Its stated position remains that Iran resume full compliance with the pact before the United States does.
"(They) have real thinking," said a source familiar with the US review. Ideas under consideration included a direct return to the 2015 nuclear deal and what he called "less for less" as an intermediate step.
Another source said that if the Biden administration concluded that it would take too long to negotiate a full return to the deal, they could take a more humble approach.
"Should they at least try to sanction Iran and get Iran to pause and maybe roll back some of its nuclear moves?" said this source.
The deal between Iran and six major powers restricted Iran's uranium enrichment activities to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons – an ambition Iran has long denied – in order to relax US and other sanctions.
When Trump left the deal in 2018, blaming it for failing to slow down Tehran's ballistic missile program and support regional proxies, he again imposed crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy.
In response, Tehran has exceeded the key limits of the deal and enriched uranium to 20% – above a 3.67% cap but below the 90% needed for weapons -, expanded its supply of low-enriched uranium and deployed advanced enrichment centrifuges .
Who takes the first step?
A key problem in revitalizing business is who goes first. Iran has insisted that the United States relax sanctions before resuming compliance. Washington wants the opposite.
In a stance on both sides, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that Tehran's “final and irreversible” decision was to return to compliance only if Washington lifts sanctions, while Biden said he would not lift the sanctions just for the sake of it get Iran back The table.
Republicans are likely to criticize Democrats Biden for offering Iran sanctions relief without their full return to the deal, arguing that doing so would waste the leverage Trump has built with the numerous sanctions imposed since 2018.
"The Biden administrator has to recognize the realities of 2021 and not 2015. This means that no pre-sanctions will be imposed on a regime that has only expanded its dangerous behavior," wrote Trump's former US ambassador Nikki Haley on Sunday on twitter.
Washington could find other ways to alleviate Iran's economic troubles, pave the way for International Monetary Fund lending to Tehran, facilitate the passage of humanitarian goods, or adopt a European idea for a credit facility.
A Western diplomat said an IMF loan could "definitely be involved" and described the possibility of a European credit facility for Iran, which would require the tacit US acceptance, as "reasonable and feasible".
The White House declined to comment beyond spokeswoman Jen Psaki's statement that Washington would do so if Tehran resumed compliance and that "the ball is in the Iranian court."
A State Department spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Biden administration is still consulting Congress and allies and partners.
"We are examining a number of ideas that are in line with our stated policy of being ready to revert to the agreement in Iran," she said without going into detail.
It was unclear when the Biden government could agree on their approach.
One deadline is February 21, when Iranian law obliges Tehran to end the full control powers conferred on the United States' nuclear watchdog under the 2015 agreement and to limit inspections only to declared nuclear sites.
Three European diplomats said even the window for an interim solution could quickly close ahead of the Iranian presidential elections in June against the US. Safety hawks are expected to win.
"It is an urgent situation. If we cannot use the window now, it is very difficult to believe that we will be able to start substantial negotiations before autumn," said one. "The current (nuclear) trajectory could close many doors."