Washington • Iran would get only minor relief from economic sanctions under an international proposal to prevent it from producing nuclear weapons, two Obama administration officials said Friday, seeking to calm concerns in Israel and on Capitol Hill that the U.S. and its allies are giving away too much to Tehran.
While playing down the sanctions relief being discussed, the administration was hoping it would be enough to finalize an initial agreement with Iran next week in Geneva.
Last week's negotiations failed to reach an agreement between Iran and six world powers the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany that would resolve a decade-long standoff over Iran's nuclear program. The countries worry that Tehran is trying to assemble an atomic weapons arsenal. Iran insists it has a right to pursue a nuclear program solely for peaceful energy production and medical research
Obama administration officials are optimistic that an initial deal with Iran can be reached during the next round of talks, although tough issues remain unresolved. The initial deal, designed to stop the Iranian nuclear program from advancing and roll it back in key areas, would be the first step toward negotiating a comprehensive agreement. The initial agreement would include stepped-up monitoring and verification aimed at preventing Iran from doing anything in secret.
One official familiar with the negotiations said the sanctions relief being offered to Iran was "way south" of "wildly exaggerated" estimates that have been reported, which have ranged from $15 billion to $50 billion.
Another official, who is familiar with details of the sanctions relief being considered, said the relief being discussed as part of an initial six-month agreement would be "limited, temporary, targeted and reversible."
The officials would not disclose the exact details of the proposal offered Iran because negotiations have not yet been concluded, but they offered explanations on the implications of what sanction relief is being discussed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss negotiations publicly.
Sanctions have taken a toll on Iran's economy. Last year, Iran's economy contracted by more than 5 percent and Iran's oil exports are down from about 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to about 1 million barrels a day now. These declining exports cost Iran about $5 billion a month and overall about $120 billion during the past several years.
Sanctions also have limited or barred Iran's access to about $100 billion in reserves, the official familiar with the sanctions said. If the agreement allows Iran to repatriate some of that money during the initial phase, it would not be anywhere near enough to ease the effect of sanctions on the Iranian economy, the official said. Moreover, core sanctions, such as the U.S. trade embargo, restrictions on Iranian banks and Iran's use of its oil revenues, will all remain in place as well as sanctions over Iran's support of terrorism and abuse of human rights.
Overlapping international sanctions have isolated Iran from the international banking system. Because of the sanctions, Iran cannot easily move money around the world. Even if Iran is given limited access to some of its funds, it would continue to have a difficult time moving and using the money.
Administration officials are worried that if Congress slaps new sanctions on Iran, as some members have discussed doing, Tehran will think the U.S. is negotiating in bad faith. But Democratic and Republican lawmakers argue that if the deal does not force Iran to put its nuclear program on hold, the U.S. shouldn't ease sanctions.
Four Republican senators New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Florida's Marco Rubio, Texas' John Cornyn and Illinois' Mark Kirk wrote to Obama on Friday expressing serious concerns that the United States was considering sanctions relief for Iran "valued at up to $20 billion and, in exchange, Iran would not be required to dismantle a single centrifuge, close a single facility or ship outside its borders a single kilogram of enriched uranium."
Still, the Democratic-controlled Senate could delay a likely vote on a new round of sanctions on Iran. Republican and Democratic aides said Friday that debate on the annual defense bill could be delayed until later next week, in part because of Senate action on a separate pharmaceutical bill. The sanctions were likely to be added as an amendment to the defense bill. That vote could slip until December, which would be after next week's talks in Geneva.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also is vigorously opposed to the proposal being discussed with Iran. He has spoken out in many forums and took to Twitter on Friday to continue to warn against rushing into what he said was a "bad deal."
"The proposal enables Iran to develop atomic bombs and build long-range missiles to reach the U.S. and Europe," he wrote. "Iran is getting everything and giving nothing."
The administration insists the proposal being discussed with Iran is tough.
"We're continuing to convey to those who are opponents and those who have claimed that this proposal is not a fair deal or one that makes too many concessions, that if that is actually the case, why didn't the Iranians accept the deal a week ago?" State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki asked.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also said Friday that he was hopeful about the next round of negotiations but said any agreement that does not recognize and respect the rights of the Iranian people has no chance of being approved. Iran refuses to completely give up uranium enrichment but the level of enrichment has become a key aspect of the ongoing Geneva talks.
The U.S. and others no longer appear to demand a complete halt to enrichment and are concentrating on curbing the highest-level production, currently at 20 percent. Such material is needed for Iran's lone research reactor, which makes isotopes for medical treatments, but is only just several steps away from warhead level at more than 90 percent enrichment. Energy-producing reactors use uranium enriched at levels of about 3.5 percent.