WASHINGTON — A senior Obama administration official said Friday that a solution could be found for one of the major stumbling blocks to an agreement that would freeze Iran’s nuclear program, and that the accord might be achieved next week.
“For the first time in nearly a decade,” the official said, “we are getting close to a first step that would stop the Iranian nuclear program from advancing and roll it back in key areas.”
Talks between six world powers and Iran are scheduled to resume in Geneva on Wednesday. Western diplomats hope to complete an accord then that would halt Iran’s nuclear efforts for six months while negotiators pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would ensure that Tehran’s program is solely for civilian purposes.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but many experts believe it is intended to provide Iran with the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
One of the major impediments to an agreement next week is Iran’s insistence that the international community formally acknowledge its “right” to continue to enrich uranium. The United States asserts that there is no such right under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
But U.S. officials appear to be seeking a solution in which Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium at the low level of 3.5 percent — used to fuel most civilian nuclear reactors — during an interim agreement and also under a comprehensive accord. The condition would be that Iran accept a series of limitations, including stringent verification, on its nuclear program. Iran now has some stockpiles of uranium it has enriched to nearly 20 percent, which is used to fuel a specialty reactor but is also much closer to weapons grade uranium.
“I think there is a way to navigate it,” the senior administration official said when asked if a compromise might be found on Iran’s claim of a right to enrich uranium.
The official did not detail the potential compromise, but one solution, Western diplomats say, would be for Iran and world powers to agree to disagree on how to interpret the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
“I am sure that whatever gets agreed to in this document, Iran will argue that they have the right to enrichment,” the senior administration official said, referring to the interim accord now under negotiation. “And we will argue, as I am sure the document will make clear, that nothing has been agreed as to the final dimensions of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program once it can assure the international community that it is peaceful.”
During a previous round of talks in Geneva, the two sides appeared to be close to cementing an interim agreement that would temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear progress in return for modest relief from economic sanctions.
The talks next week will involve Iran and the countries that make up the P5 plus 1: the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, will begin the talks Wednesday by meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The negotiations will continue over the next few days. If an agreement appears to be near, it is possible that Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers will fly to Geneva to complete the deal.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama urged Congress not to impose additional sanctions on Iran, arguing that it would poison the atmosphere for the talks.
If an interim agreement can be reached, the United States will ease the punishing economic sanctions it has imposed on Iran, mainly by giving Iran access to its frozen assets.
Israeli officials and experts outside government have speculated that Iran might receive $15 billion, or much more, in sanctions relief through this mechanism.
The Obama administration will not say publicly how much relief it is prepared to provide, although some officials have suggested that it could be about $5 billion.
Asked about reports that the relief could be $15 billion or $20 billion, the senior administration official said, “It is way south of all of that, and quite frankly it will be dwarfed by the restrictions that are still in place.”
A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was issued Thursday, suggested that Iran had suspended some elements of its nuclear program.
The senior administration official said that the development was welcome but not sufficient.
“We appreciate the step, but the reason for our negotiation is to get at certainty that Iran can’t have a nuclear weapon, and we are a long way from that,” the official added.
The prospect that a deal could be reached soon has provoked a storm of protest from Israel and criticism from Republicans and some Democrats.