Details align with leaked Netanyahu remark about 'mini-deal'

US, Iran said nearing informal, limited ‘political ceasefire,’ not full nuke deal

Citing Israeli, US and Iranian officials, New York Times reports sides closing in on unwritten understandings to curb further uranium enrichment in return for unfreezing assets

A student looks at Iran's domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country's nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
A student looks at Iran's domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country's nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The United States and Iran are homing in on informal, limited understandings aimed primarily at anchoring the current status quo and preventing a potentially catastrophic escalation, referred to by Iranian officials as a “political ceasefire,” The New York Times reported late Wednesday.

The report — which cited three unnamed senior Israeli officials, a US official and several Iranian officials — said the understandings would see Tehran pledge not to enrich uranium beyond its current level of 60 percent purity, to better cooperate with UN nuclear inspectors, to stop its proxy terror groups from attacking US contractors in Iraq and Syria, to avoid providing Russia with ballistic missiles, and to release three American-Iranians held in the Islamic Republic.

In return, Washington would promise not to tighten its existing economic sanctions, to unfreeze billions in Iranian assets held abroad alongside assurances that the money will only be used for humanitarian purposes, and to not pursue punitive resolutions against the Islamic Republic at the UN or at the latter’s atomic watchdog.

Two Israeli officials were quoted as saying the understandings were “imminent.”

The report suggested that recent denials by American officials that a deal is in the offing hinge on semantics, since the understandings were expected to be informal and unwritten, also avoiding the need for the US Congress to approve them.

The details also appeared to align with information reportedly divulged to lawmakers this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was said to remark that Israel would be able to “live with” such understandings.

Netanyahu downplayed the US-Iran negotiations as closing in on a “mini-deal, not a deal,” according to several reports Tuesday in Hebrew media citing multiple unnamed lawmakers who took part in a closed-door, three-hour meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“This isn’t the deal we are familiar with,” the prime minister reportedly said, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal staunchly opposed by Jerusalem, which Washington left in 2018.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting alongside Likud MK Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset on June 13, 2023 (Courtesy Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Netanyahu reportedly said the agreements would include an Iranian promise not to enrich uranium to more than 60% purity, in exchange for the US unfreezing tens of billions of dollars in Iranian funds held abroad and for the countries carrying out a prisoner swap deal.

The most recent estimate by the International Atomic Energy Agency is that Iran has 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.

While some reports said Netanyahu said Israel would also oppose the understandings and wouldn’t be bound by them, other reports said MKs understood that Israel would be able to “live with them.”

The New York Times report quoted International Crisis Group’s Iran director Ali Vaez as saying that “none of this is aimed at reaching a groundbreaking agreement,” and that the negotiations are rather geared toward putting “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.”

However, Vaez suggested that the understandings could facilitate talks on a broader deal in the future: “The objective is to stabilize the tensions, to create time and space to discuss the future diplomacy and the nuclear deal.”

Dennis Ross speaks at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto on September 18, 2016 (Michelle Shabtai)

The report also cited Dennis Ross, a former Middle East policy mastermind under several US administrations, as saying during a visit to Israel that US President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to avoid the Iran situation spiraling out of control while it focuses on Russia and Ukraine.

“The US seems to be making clear to Iran that if you go to 90%, you’re going to pay a hell of a price,” Ross, who is holding talks in Israel with officials familiar with the US-Iran negotiations, was quoted as saying. “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.”

But Ross added that the negotiated crisis-averting mechanism would only be useful for so long, since Tehran could be “buying time” to continue to fortify its underground nuclear sites to be resistant to all US bunker-busting capabilities.

A US official confirmed late Monday that Washington was in contact with Iran regarding the long-stalled nuclear talks, but denied that discussions on an interim agreement were taking place.

Those comments, reported by Reuters, came hours after Iran appeared to acknowledge that talks were taking place, with the country’s Foreign Ministry thanking Oman for its role as mediator.

The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had communicated with Iran to warn it regarding which of its actions could be met with belligerence or, conversely, help facilitate more productive negotiations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) welcomes International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi ahead of a meeting in Tehran on March 4, 2023. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

“There are no talks about an interim deal,” the US official said. “We have made clear to them what escalatory steps they needed to avoid to prevent a crisis and what de-escalatory steps they could take to create a more positive context.”

The US official declined to detail what steps Iran had been told to avoid or encouraged to take, but indicated that Washington was seeking greater cooperation between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog.

On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed support for an agreement on the country’s nuclear program with the West, but added that “the existing infrastructure of the nuclear industry should not be touched.”

He claimed that the international community was powerless to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon if it sought one, but also urged cooperation with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency while warning against succumbing to “bullying” based on “unfounded claims.”

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said Tehran was not interested in an interim agreement with Washington, but would consider a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, shown in the poster at top right, at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian use only and that it is not seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.

Israel was not a party to the original nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which Netanyahu lobbied hard against. Efforts by Europe and the Biden administration to revive the agreement and bring Washington back into the pact have also been met with protests from Jerusalem.

Israel argues that diplomatic efforts fall short of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and instead advocates a credible military threat.

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