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U.S. offers to ease sanctions if Iran freezes its nuclear program

November 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The U.S. and other world powers plan to consider reversing economic sanctions on Iran, if the nation will suspend its controversial nuclear program. The announcement comes as Iranian officials and world leaders meet in Geneva for a second round of talks. Gwen Ifill talks to The New York Times' Michael Gordon and Margaret Warner.
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GWEN IFILL: The U.S. and five other nations are back meeting with Iran over its nuclear program, and there were signs today that a preliminary deal could be within reach.

The second round of talks in Geneva followed promising sessions just three weeks ago. American officials have now floated possible terms. If Iran suspends nuclear activity for six months and actually reverses part of its program, then crippling economic sanctions could be eased.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed that’s what’s on the table between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, the so-called P5-plus-one.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: We’re taking advantage of a new level of seriousness that we have seen to engage in negotiations. But we are doing it in a way that makes clear that actions are what matter here, that steps that the P5-plus-one would insist upon in return for the moderate relief that I described would have to be verifiable, and they would be reversible.

GWEN IFILL: Carney called the negotiations serious and substantive.

And Iran’s chief negotiator said the world powers have accepted its framework plan for capping some nuclear activities. Later, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, offered his own assessment.

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FOREIGN MINISTER MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, Iran (through interpreter): We hope that during these two days, we either come to a definite result or make noteworthy progress. These negotiations are very grand, but very tough also. It may need very lengthy discussions. Our feeling is that the possibility exists in these two days, but there might be a chance that there will be a need for more negotiation.

GWEN IFILL: But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a nation thought to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, objected to the budding deal.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: This proposal would allow Iran to retain the capabilities to make nuclear weapons. Israel totally opposes these proposals. I believe that adopting them would be a mistake of historic proportions. They must be rejected outright.

GWEN IFILL: Both Israel and the U.S. have warned they will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Iran denies harboring any such ambition.

I’m joined by Michael Gordon, who is covering the Geneva talks for The New York Times, and our own chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner.

Michael, so, tell us, when did this new accommodation come about, and how?

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: Well, it really began with the arrival of the new Iranian president, Rouhani, who outreached to the West and made clear he was seeking an accommodation on nuclear issues.

Of course, it remains to be seen how far-reaching an agreement the Iranians are willing to accept, and also what the West is willing to give in return. But they have become quite serious. They have been working hard behind closed doors, and there’s an expectation there could be an interim agreement as early as tomorrow, Friday.

GWEN IFILL: So the interim agreement means exactly what? We heard about this six months. We heard about the lifting of sanctions, but how hard and fast is it so far?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, what — the Obama administration prefers to call it the first step. They don’t like the word interim agreement, because it implies it might be an end in itself, and also because Israel has warned against a partial agreement.

So they call it the first step. And we haven’t seen any of the details of this agreement. In fact, none of this has been announced. But the basic idea is to put some constraints on the Iranian program that would freeze it in place and perhaps even walk some of it back, so that Iran is not marching along with its nuclear effort while negotiators — while negotiators are seeking a more comprehensive accord.

And, in return, the United States would lift some modest sanctions. They would probably provide access to frozen assets. But they would take some steps. But they would keep the core financial and other sanctions, because, first of all, it’s politically difficult to lift those in the United States. And, second of all, they don’t want to play that card unless they get a real final comprehensive agreement.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret, it’s interesting to hear Michael talk about the U.S.’ characterization of this as a first step.

How active has the United States been behind the scenes or in front of the curtain in trying to get to this point?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, very active, Gwen. And — and — but this blueprint, as I know Michael know because we have talked about it — this blueprint of a first step, but at the same time agreeing on an end goal is actually blueprint that the Iranians proposed, because Iranians say privately to us, look, President Rouhani has all these hard-liners at home. If he can’t say that the world powers agree that at the end of this road, we are going to have our right to enrich recognized and all the sanctions lifted, in return for what we do with our own nuclear program, then he can’t even sell the interim step.

So this is very much following both public and private conversations that the two sides have had, certainly mostly beginning since Rouhani made — won reelection — won election promising to take a new approach. But, of course, there had been talks going on, back-channel talks, for years and years. They just never led anywhere. 

GWEN IFILL: But back-channel talks involving the U.S. and Iran, but what about the rest of the P5-plus-one? This is technically an international agreement, isn’t it, not just between two nations?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Yes.

And the Europeans have been talking to the Iranians a lot. In fact, they have much closer commercial ties. But — but the two big players that — the two players with this — so much distrust are the U.S. and Iran. And that is why one senior Iranian official said to me, President Rouhani literally cannot afford politically to even sell the interim step if he doesn’t also have some agreement on the end state or end goal. How precise that is remains to be seen.

GWEN IFILL: What about the U.S. Congress’ role? These — if the sanctions are going to even be partially — partially lifted, don’t they have a say?

MARGARET WARNER: They do, Gwen, though there’s a little back door.

Obviously, international sanctions can’t be changed by the president. But there are some sanctions that were either imposed by Congress legislatively, but they left a waiver provision, where the president under certain conditions can waive them temporarily, and also some were imposed by executive action.

So that’s what the administration has been looking at. The problem is that there’s also a move afoot on the Hill to not only — to, one, impose further sanctions before — while the negotiations are going on, which the Iranians say would be a deal-breaker, but also Senator Bob Corker and others are now considering a bill — in fact, he said yesterday — that that would take away the president’s authority to exercise these waivers.

So you had the president on the phone to key members of the Senate last week and also Secretary Kerry and Vice President Biden in private meetings up there trying to say, look, at least give us 60 days. Let’s see what we can get here.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, let’s talk about some of the nuts and bolts here. What kind of controls can be placed on these nuclear stockpiles in order for this agreement to have any kind of teeth?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think the categories that have been trotted out is — I mean, what could be done is, you could put constraints on the number of centrifuges Iraq (sic) would utilize to enrich uranium.

You could stipulate that they have to in some way render a less useful than 20 percent enriched uranium that they already have in their stockpile. You could require them to suspend work on a heavy water plant that would eventually produce plutonium. The basic idea is to freeze the program in place.

And, you know, what’s interesting, Gwen, is that there’s already a rather furious debate about this agreement that hasn’t yet been concluded or announced pitting the Israeli prime minister and critics against the administration. And the basic debate boils down to this: Is this the first step toward a comprehensive agreement, or is the first step also the last step, meaning, is this basically an elaborate finesse that will allow Iran to sort of freeze its program, but maintain a potential option down the road to pursue nuclear weapons in return for some sanctions relief?

I think that’s what’s at the heart of the congressional concerns. And so there’s already debate about an agreement that doesn’t even exist.

GWEN IFILL: But the Israelis are — have been pretty consistent, Margaret, about this, that they don’t even want a partial deal. Why so firm?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the Israelis are afraid, just as Michael said, that — that this will be a feint on the part of Iran, that they will get just enough relief from sanctions, for instance, on the frozen funds to at least let their economy breathe slightly, though I don’t think that’s much, and that — and then they will continue not only with this full capacity to enrich, which they can restart at any moment, but will maybe even continue enriching at this lower level, 3.5 percent, not to get technical about it, because what the key of this interim agreement, as I understand, is that, for both sides, steps have to be completely reversible.

So the president account say to the Israelis and to Congress, look, if we get the idea eight months from now these negotiations are going nowhere, we can reverse them.

GWEN IFILL: Israel isn’t even buying that.

MARGARET WARNER: No.

GWEN IFILL: They’re saying the intention is bad, so there’s no reason — there’s no room for their agreeing on this.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, exactly.

And they — the Israelis do not believe the Iranians could ever be trusted to have any enrichment program at all, even under full IAEA safeguards. And the Americans have signaled they are ready to make that recognition.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Gordon of The New York Times, our own Margaret Warner here in Washington, thank you both very much.