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US said to mull easing sanctions on Iran in exchange for nuclear freeze

If a deal cannot be reached, Biden administration reportedly weighing a number of possible interim steps; new president Raisi speaks with Macron, in 1st call with a Western leader

Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, arrives at the 'Grand Hotel Vienna' where closed-door nuclear talks are taking place in the Austrian capital, on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)
Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, arrives at the 'Grand Hotel Vienna' where closed-door nuclear talks are taking place in the Austrian capital, on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

With chances of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal fading, the US is considering the possibility of easing sanctions on Iran in return for an agreement that the Islamic Republic freeze any progress on its nuclear project, Bloomberg news reported Monday.

If a widescale deal cannot be reached, the US is weighing a number of possible interim steps, including sanctions relief, officials familiar with the negotiations were quoted by the news agency as saying.

The move would be different from a full return to the JCPOA, the 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers, as it would only include limited sanctions relief in exchange for Iran freezing its most provocative nuclear proliferation work, the report said, citing the officials.

Western powers fear that the ascension of hardline new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has quashed any realistic chance of a resumption of the now-abrogated agreement.

Raisi succeeds the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, whose landmark achievement during his two-term presidency was the 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers: the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

Former United States president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions that have choked Iran’s oil-dependent economy. Iran responded by walking back measures it had agreed to abide by, including enriching uranium to unprecedented levels, near weapons-grade.

Talks kicked off in April in Vienna to find a way to bring both parties back to the deal. But the last round took place on June 20, with no date set for when they would resume. The EU chairs the meetings.

The US has said it is “an urgent priority” to get Iran back to the table.

This combination of file pictures created on August 9, 2021, shows French President Emmanuel Macron and
Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi. (Stephane De Sakutin and Atta Kenare/Various Sources/AFP)

Raisi told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Monday that negotiations with world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal must guarantee Tehran’s “rights.”

“In any negotiation, the rights of the Iranian people must be upheld and the interests of our nation ensured,” Raisi said in an hour-long phone call, according to the Iranian presidency’s website.

It was Raisi’s first reported call with a Western leader since taking office last week.

“The Americans clearly violated their obligations by imposing new sanctions,” Raisi told Macron, while also stressing the “failure” of European parties to the deal to help Iran circumvent US sanctions.

The Israeli-linked Japanese-owned tanker MT Mercer Street is seen off the port of the Gulf Emirate of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates on August 3, 2021. (Karim SAHIB / AFP)

A return to the 2015 deal seems more unlikely as tensions have risen, notably with an attack by drones last week on an Israeli-linked tanker off Oman that killed a Briton and a Romanian national on board.

The G7 — the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — blamed the attack on Iran, which denies the accusation.

“The Islamic Republic is very serious about providing security and maintaining deterrence in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman Region,” Raisi told Macron, without referring directly to the incident or the accusations.

Iran “will confront elements that deprive the region of its security,” he added.

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