Hoping to Avert Nuclear Crisis, U.S. Seeks Informal Agreement With Iran

The Biden administration has been negotiating quietly with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear program and free imprisoned Americans, according to officials from three countries, in part of a larger U.S. effort to ease tensions and reduce the risk of a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

The U.S. goal is to reach an informal, unwritten agreement, which some Iranian officials are calling a “political cease-fire.” It would aim to prevent a further escalation in a long-hostile relationship that has grown even more fraught as Iran builds up a stockpile of highly enriched uranium close to bomb-grade purity, supplies Russia with drones for use in Ukraine and brutally cracks down on domestic political protests.

The broad outlines of the talks were confirmed by three senior Israeli officials, an Iranian official and a U.S. official. American officials would not discuss efforts to win the release of prisoners in detail, beyond calling that an urgent U.S. priority.

The indirect talks, some occurring this spring in the Gulf Arab state of Oman, reflect a resumption of diplomacy between the United States and Iran after the collapse of more than a year of negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which sharply limited Iran’s activities in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran accelerated its nuclear program months after President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the deal and imposed a slew of new sanctions on the country in 2018.

Iran would agree under a new pact — which two Israeli officials called “imminent” — not to enrich uranium beyond its current production level of 60 percent purity. That is close to but short of the 90 percent purity needed to fashion a nuclear weapon, a level that the United States has warned would force a severe response.

Iran would also halt lethal attacks on American contractors in Syria and Iraq by its proxies in the region, expand its cooperation with international nuclear inspectors, and refrain from selling ballistic missiles to Russia, Iranian officials said.

In return, Iran would expect the United States to avoid tightening sanctions already choking its economy; to not seize oil-bearing foreign tankers, as it most recently did in April; and to not seek new punitive resolutions at the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency against Iran for its nuclear activity.

“None of this is aimed at reaching a groundbreaking agreement,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director for the International Crisis Group, but instead “aimed at preventing existing tensions from boiling over and put a lid on any activity that basically crosses a red line or puts either party in a position to retaliate in a way that destabilizes the status quo.”

“The objective is to stabilize the tensions, to create time and space to discuss the future diplomacy and the nuclear deal,” Mr. Vaez said.

Iran also expects the United States to unfreeze billions of dollars in Iranian assets, whose use would be limited to humanitarian purposes, in exchange for the release of three Iranian American prisoners whom the U.S. calls wrongfully detained. U.S. officials have not confirmed such a linkage between the prisoners and the money, nor any connection between prisoners and nuclear matters.

In what could be a sign of a developing agreement, the United States issued a waiver last week allowing Iraq to pay $2.76 billion in energy debts to Iran. The money would be restricted to use by U.S.-approved third-party vendors for items like food and medicine, according to the State Department.

That could allay concerns that the Biden administration is placing billions into the hands of a ruthless authoritarian regime that is killing protesters, supporting Russia’s Ukraine war effort, and funding anti-Israeli proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. Republicans hammered the Obama administration for releasing billions in frozen Iranian cash, which they said enabled the subsidy of terrorist activities.

Iranian officials are also trying to claim an estimated $7 billion worth of oil purchase payments held in South Korea that they have linked to the release of American prisoners. That money, too, would be restricted for humanitarian use, and held in a Qatari bank, according to an Iranian official and several other people familiar with the negotiations.

The renewed U.S. focus on Iran’s nuclear program comes amid growing concern within the Biden administration that Tehran could precipitate a crisis by further increasing its uranium enrichment.

“The U.S. seems to be making clear to Iran that if you go to 90 percent, you’re going to pay a hell of a price,” said Dennis Ross, who helped craft Middle East policy for several U.S. presidents. Mr. Ross spoke from Israel, where he had been meeting with security officials familiar with the recent talks.

At the same time, Mr. Ross said, the Biden administration has no appetite for a new crisis. “They want the priority and focus to remain on Ukraine and Russia,” he said. “Having a war in the Mideast, where you know how it starts but you don’t know how it ends, that’s the last thing they want.”

Speaking at a news briefing on Wednesday, the State Department spokesman, Matt Miller, said that “rumors about a nuclear deal — interim or otherwise — are false or misleading.”

“Our No. 1 policy is ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, so of course we’ve been watching Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities,” Mr. Miller added. “We believe diplomacy is the best path to help achieve that, but we are preparing for all possible options and contingencies.”

The American denial of a pending “nuclear deal” could hinge on semantics, however, if the outcome amounts to the informal understanding described by multiple officials. Such an understanding would also avoid the need for approval from a U.S. Congress deeply hostile to Iran.

In an unexpected rhetorical shift, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday that he could endorse an agreement with the West if Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was kept intact, according to state media reports. Mr. Khamenei also said that Iran should maintain at least some cooperation with international nuclear inspectors.

Israel has warned that Iran could suffer dire consequences from producing bomb-worthy uranium. “If Iran enriches to the 90 percent weaponized level, it would be a great error and the price would be heavy,” Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said in May.

Even if Iran were to use its high-speed centrifuges to purify uranium to a level suitable for making a nuclear weapon, it would still take time to construct such a bomb. In March, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told a House subcommittee that process could take “several months.”

“The United States military has developed multiple options for our national leadership to consider, if or when Iran decides to develop a nuclear weapon,” General Milley added.

A senior Israeli defense official said that Israeli estimates it would take Iran much longer — at least one year and perhaps more than two years — to fashion a bomb and said Mr. Milley’s comments reflect an American effort to convey the urgency of striking a new agreement with Tehran as soon as possible.

Iran has long insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes despite evidence that it has researched nuclear military capabilities.

The Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach with Iran resumed at the end of the year last year with the U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, holding two meetings with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Amir Saeid Iravani, according to people familiar with the meetings. In early May, the White House Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, traveled to Oman for indirect talks mediated by the Omanis with an Iranian delegation that included Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed on Monday.

During negotiations to restore the 2015 deal, Iran refused to meet directly with U.S. officials.

In a statement to The New York Times, Iran’s mission to the United Nations declined to address details of the talks but said that “it is important to create a new atmosphere and move forward from the current situation.”

The renewed talks have troubled some Israeli officials, who worry that the implementation of new understandings could reduce Western economic pressure on Iran and even lead to a broader nuclear agreement that, Israel fears, could throw a lifeline to Tehran’s economy without sufficiently derailing its nuclear activities.

Mr. Ross said that a modest, crisis-averting agreement could be useful, but only if it were time-limited. Iran has been constructing new underground facilities, he noted, which could likely withstand American the bunker-busting bombs that currently threaten its existing nuclear sites.

“The more they harden, the more the military options lose their potency,” Mr. Ross said. “Buying time from that standpoint works for the Iranians.”

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