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Sides have indicated this week that a deal might be near

Report: Under draft nuke deal, Iran to first cut enrichment to 5%; get $7b in assets

Outline detailed by Reuters provides for Iran’s release of Western prisoners, subsequent gradual waiving of sanctions

A general view of Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, on February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner/AP)
A general view of Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, on February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner/AP)

A draft agreement between Iran and world powers would involve a phased return to the 2015 nuclear deal, with both sides initially taking interim steps to curb enrichment and lift some sanctions, according to a report Thursday.

The 20-page draft deal would also include the release of Westerners held by Iran, a key US demand, according to Reuters. Former US president Donald Trump abandoned the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, leading Iran to resume open enrichment of nuclear material to levels just below weapons-grade.

Officials involved in talks over the last seven months to reinstate the deal say time is running low, though some have indicated optimism that the sides could reach an agreement soon.

Iran’s top negotiator in Vienna, Ali Bagheri Kani, said Wednesday that world powers were “closer than ever” to reaching an agreement, while the US said it was in the “very final stages” of indirect talks with the Islamic Republic.

Israel has opposed a US return to the 2015 terms or a similar accord, fearing it would ease Iran’s path to the bomb. Israel’s Channel 13 said Thursday, in an unsourced report on the reported terms of the draft accord, “The feeling in Israel is that within days or weeks there will be a return to the old-new bad deal we knew.”

According to diplomats quoted by Reuters, the draft outline includes a series of steps for all parties to take following its final approval, starting with Iran suspending enrichment of uranium above 5%.

The first phase will include the unfreezing of some $7 billion in Iranian funds stuck in South Korean banks under US sanctions, as well as the release of Western prisoners held in Iran.

Eventually, Iran will return to core nuclear limits like the 3.67% cap on enrichment purity, diplomats said, and sanctions will begin to be waived.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, in an image released on November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

The new agreement is said to entail the US granting waivers on sanctions against Islamic Republic’s oil sector rather than lifting them outright. This will require the renewal of waivers every few months, as was done with the 2015 deal.

According to the diplomats, the time between the initiation of the deal and when sanctions are waived is not yet decided, but is estimated to be between one and three months.

Iran is also seeking a guarantee that the US will not be able to withdraw unilaterally from the agreement again, which would require an act of Congress. It is also demanding promises that the US will halt pressuring companies not to trade or invest in Iran.

The spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry appeared to deny the report’s validity, tweeting that any eventual deal “will be far from the unsourced spin making the rounds.”

The US is not a direct party to the deal, but is closely involved with the negotiations in Vienna.

Israel is also not a party to the Vienna talks, and has said it reserves the right to act as it sees fit against Iran’s nuclear program regardless of the negotiations’ outcome. While the government is officially opposed to a return to the 2015 deal, it has also sought to influence negotiations to seek tighter curbs on Tehran and more robust security arrangements.

Earlier this week, it dispatched a senior diplomat to Vienna for meetings related to the nuclear talks.

Iran’s uranium conversion facility near Isfahan, which reprocesses uranium ore concentrate into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is then taken to Natanz and fed into the centrifuges for enrichment, March 30, 2005. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Israel’s Channel 12 reported Wednesday that the Iranians want to sign the new agreement ahead of the Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, on March 20, citing a diplomatic source.

Iran denies pursuing nuclear weapons, though experts say its current enrichment levels do not have any civilian applications.

In a televised speech on Thursday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that his country would ramp up the development of its civilian nuclear program, while asserting that claims of interest in nuclear weapons were “nonsense.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a televised video conference with an audience in the city of Tabriz commemorating the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, on February 17, 2022. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

But talks have repeatedly stalled in recent months as Iranian negotiators press hardline demands, exasperating Western diplomats.

US negotiator Robert Malley and National Security Council envoy Brett McGurk expressed concern last week of Iran being only “weeks” away from having enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon, upping pressure on the Biden administration to reach a deal before it becomes irrelevant.

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