WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is considering a new approach in negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program that would ease economic sanctions faster than previously offered if Tehran makes greater concessions than it has ever discussed. The proposal is one of several options being discussed before another round of negotiations between world powers and the Islamic republic, officials said Friday.
The U.S. aim is to try to prevent the next set of talks with Iran from failing like all previous efforts.
The strategizing is taking place amid an upsurge in diplomatic activity. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday talks of its own in Tehran in December. Negotiations bogged down last summer over permission to investigate sites for possible secret work on nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, top negotiators from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have agreed to meet Nov. 21 in Brussels, a Western official said, in a prelude to a possible resumption of talks between those countries and Iran early next year. By that time, the U.S. also could be wielding the threat of new and unprecedented sanctions against the Iranian economy that lawmakers in Congress are working on, according to congressional aides and people involved in drafting the measures.
The basic contours of any negotiated solution are clear: U.S., European and other international sanctions would be eased if Iran halts its enrichment of uranium that is getting closer to weapons-grade, sends abroad its existing stockpile of such uranium and suspends operations at its underground Fordo facility.
But Iran's leadership has refused to bite on that approach, even as the value of its currency has dropped precipitously against the dollar, sparking an economic depression and massive public discontent.
That has prompted U.S. brainstorming on ways to reshape the offer to make it more attractive for the Iranians, without granting any new concessions that would reward the regime for its intransigence, administration officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The administration sees Iran's refusal to comply with its nuclear obligations as the sole cause for the logjam. But officials say the administration is considering an expanded offer that includes a deeper and faster drawdown in the oil and other sanctions that are sapping billions of dollars out of the Iranian economy.
But those sanctions could be scaled back only if Tehran agrees to far greater concessions that it has ever hinted at on its fiercely-defended enrichment program. Details of the potential proposal are still unclear, but the premise is to craft a deal that allows both sides to avoid the appearance of caving into the other's demands.
Washington and many of its European and Arab partners fear Iran is trying to develop nuclear warheads, even if the Islamic republic insists the program is solely designed for peaceful energy and medical research purposes. The Obama administration remains committed to a diplomatic solution. It says military options should only be a last resort and has pressed ally Israel to hold off on any plans for a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Patience in Israel and the United States is wearing thin. Israel's defense minister said Thursday that the timetable for Iran to enrich enough uranium to build nuclear weapons has been delayed by eight months. It was an apparent reference to Iran's decision, as reported by the IAEA, to convert much of its higher-level enriched uranium into a powder for a medical research reactor that is difficult to reprocess for weapons production.
Israel sees the nuclear program as an existential threat, citing Iranian denials of the Holocaust, calls for Israel's destruction, development of missiles capable of striking Israel and its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. It has pressed Washington in the past for more aggressive military posturing.
With Obama re-elected, a U.S. official said the administration also would be open to direct talks with Tehran as part of the broader negotiations involving the larger group of world powers, if those would advance hopes of a negotiated agreement. But a one-on-one encounter sometime in the next three months is considered highly unlikely by the administration because it sees no willingness by the Iranians, said the official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Discussions with Tehran have been going on for a decade.
In Congress, lawmakers are working on a set of new sanctions that could prevent the Iran from doing business with most of the world until it agrees to international constraints on its nuclear program. The bipartisan financial and trade restrictions amount to a "complete sanctions regime" against Tehran, according to one congressional aide involved in the process, but they put the Obama administration in a difficult position with allies who are still trading with Iran.
The measures by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would target everything from Iranian assets overseas to all foreign goods that the country imports, building on the tough sanctions package against Tehran's oil industry that the duo pushed through earlier this year, according to congressional aides and people involved in the process. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorize to discuss the issue publicly.