Russian envoy Mikhail Ulyanov and US Special Envoy Robert Malley meeting in Vienna. December 15, 2021

Russian envoy Mikhail Ulyanov (R) and US Special Envoy Robert Malley meeting in Vienna. December 15, 2021

Russia Discussed An Interim Nuclear Deal With Iran, US Officials Say


Iran has rejected a Russia-proposed ‘interim’ deal that would have given limited sanctions relief in return for some nuclear curbs, US officials have told NBC News.

According to NBC, several United States officials including a Congressional official, a former official and four other people familiar with the Iran nuclear case said Washington was aware of Moscow’s suggestion to Tehran.

An interim deal would been a partial step towards restoring the 2015 agreement, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which imposed strict curbs on the Iranian nuclear program and which the US left in 2018.

One person familiar with the Russian proposal described it as “an interim step towards a full return to compliance” with the JCPOA: “It’s not a substitute…it’s not a new agreement. It’s an understanding to go part of the way there.”

A statement from Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations Friday appeared to rule out such a step. “Iran seeks a reliable but also durable agreement that is consistent with the promises [over lifting sanctions] made in the JCPOA, and any agreement that does not meet these two criteria is not on the agenda for us,” it read. The statement reiterated Tehran’s refusal talk directly with Washington until the US returned to the JCPOA.

NBC's sources said Russia had discussed a draft with Tehran in recent weeks under which Iran would stop uranium enrichment to 60 percent, which it began last year, and dispose of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium. In return, the US would ‘allow’ Iran access to assets frozen in South Korea, Japan, and Iraq by third parties wary of US punitive action under Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sales and financial sector.

Russia has played an active role in the Vienna talks since they resumed November, with its representative Mikhail Ulyanov regularly reporting meetings with the US special representative for Iran, Robert Malley. Russian president Vladimir Putin told reporters Wednesday, before a three-hour meeting with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi (Raeesi) in Moscow, that he was eager to hear Raisi’s take on the Vienna talks.

Extracting leverage

But a senior official in the administration of US President Joe Biden told NBC that an interim “arrangement” was not under serious discussion. Some US lawmakers have expressed concern at the possibility that this would not return the Iran nuclear program to JCPOA limits.

More than 100 Republican members of Congress wrote recently to Biden urging him to withdraw from any negotiations over the JCPOA. Opponents of the JCPOA have also suggested that any settlement other than the 2015 agreement should be reviewed by Congress.

Some principlists in Tehran, who generally opposed the JCPOA, also reject any notion of interim arrangements and argue that Iran can extract leverage from its uranium stockpiles and use of more advanced centrifuges barred by the JCPOA.

The idea of an interim agreement came first from a European state, a source told Axios in November, with the idea focused on releasing Iranian money frozen in Asia. The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) in a report November 13 said Iran's assets frozen abroad totaled $50 billion, including $8 billion in South Korea, $3 billion in Japan, and $6 billion in Iraq.

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