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US, Iran Close To Informal Understanding Aimed At Easing Tensions

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US, Iran Close To Informal Understanding Aimed At Easing Tensions

Diplomats are also pushing Iran to voluntarily limit its uranium-enrichment levels.

The US and Iran are close to an informal understanding under which Tehran would free American prisoners and eventually limit its nuclear program, people familiar with the matter said.

Negotiations through intermediaries in Oman and on the sidelines of United Nations meetings led to an initial agreement for Iran to free US prisoners, while the US would release payments owed to the Islamic Republic that were frozen by sanctions, according to officials with knowledge the talks.

Diplomats are also pushing Iran to voluntarily limit its uranium-enrichment levels and boost its cooperation with international monitors in return for allowances to ship more crude, said one person familiar with the Iranian position.

“There is some diplomacy in play,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official, who was in Vienna this week to meet with diplomats assigned to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “There will at least be a cease-fire put in place, they won’t escalate more.”

The developments mark the best signs of progress between the two global rivals in several months, and follow heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear program after a drop in international examinations and the detection of uranium particles just below weapons grade. But they’re also politically perilous for President Joe Biden, who will face severe blowback from Republicans, and even some Democrats, if he cuts even an informal deal with Iran heading into an election year.

The first stage of the plan is already in train, with the US making substantial arrangements to waive sanctions that prohibited Iraq from paying about $2.7 billion owed to Tehran for natural-gas shipments. A similar waiver is expected for South Korea, which owes Iran $7 billion for oil purchases. In return, at least three US prisoners will be freed.

The detainees’ release will happen within the following days or weeks, according to the officials. Iran’s top diplomat has been suggesting since March that the two countries were on the cusp of a prisoner exchange.

Asked about the diplomacy on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller declined to discuss the status of Americans being held by Iran and denied any nuclear deal was in the works.

‘Rumors about a nuclear deal, interim or otherwise, are false and misleading,” Miller said. “Our position on the question has not changed. We believe our number one policy is ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. So of course, we’ve been watching Iran’s enrichment activities.”

Miller defended the sanctions waiver allowing Iraq to pay Iran for electricity imports, saying such exceptions had been granted since 2018 and that the money goes to restricted accounts where it can only be used to pay for humanitarian or other non-sanctioned transactions.

“These are approved in every case on a case-by-case basis by the United States, only for humanitarian purposes,” Miller said.

The South Korea funds would face similar restrictions, and the transfer would take place in Switzerland, according to another person familiar with the discussions who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations. The money would be held in Qatari banks, they said.

Even that exchange will open the Biden administration up to criticism from skeptics of Iran, who point to its recent crackdown on human-rights protests, plots to assassinate former US government officials, accusations that it continues to flaunt US sanctions, a and what the Biden administration calls deepening support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, the US accused Russia of importing supplies from Iran for a domestic factory that would manufacture Iranian-designed drones for the war in Ukraine. The White House accompanied that claim with intelligence findings that pointed to what it described as an escalating military collaboration between the two countries.

Officials underscored the current talks aren’t focused on the atomic tensions that have intensified in the wake of the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to scuttle the so-called JCPOA accord, which lifted sanctions in return for strict monitoring and nuclear-fuel limits. Iran’s government responded by restricting some IAEA activities and dramatically boosting uranium enrichment.

Further diplomacy would focus on reaching an agreement that falls short of a signed deal, according to the officials. Two other people familiar with the matter said it would be an informal understanding on Iran’s nuclear program.

The US wants pledges that Iran won’t exceed 60% levels of uranium enrichment and will work with IAEA investigators to clarify the provenance of decades-old uranium particles detected at two undeclared sites. In return, Iran expects the US to stop blocking tankers and seizing oil shipments at sea.

More Progress

In an additional sign of progress between the two countries, the officials highlighted renewed cooperation between the IAEA and Iran over the last month. Agency officials were allowed to install sensitive, high-tech monitoring equipment at fuel factories, which can detect enrichment inventory beyond Iran’s declared limits.

Iran voluntarily agreed to avoid triggering more tensions such as those seen in February, when trace uranium particles just below weapons grade were detected, according to another senior diplomat. The IAEA reported last month that Iran had answered some of its inspectors questions and is working toward resolving the rest.

One French official, who asked not to be identified in line with government rules, said President Emmanuel Macron would discuss Iran with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when they meet Friday, and Macron wants to hear about Saudi efforts to normalize ties with Iran.

The official said the US efforts are being conducted in a wider framework and it’s up to Iran to ease any difficulties around a set of agreements.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this week he would support a nuclear deal with the West as long as the country’s installed atomic capacity isn’t touched.

“You may want to reach some agreements, that’s not a problem, but the infrastructure shouldn’t be touched or destroyed,” Khamenei said in a speech in Tehran on Sunday.

Talks between the US and Iran haven’t broached imposing any limits on the installed capacity, according to the officials.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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