Unofficial US-Iran talks give hope for a new nuclear deal

The US appears to be in unofficial talks on Iran’s nuclear program and has released $2.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds. However, a return to the 2015 agreement seems unlikely.

The US State Department spokesman confirmed last week that the United States had released $2.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds. However, the use of the funds is limited to humanitarian purposes. According to Mattew Miller, the US allowed Iraq to pay part of its debt to Iran. Iraq imports gas and electricity from Iran but is not allowed to pay in US dollars due to US sanctions. In November 2022, the US tightened controls on international dollar transactions by Iraqi commercial banks. The aim of this was to stop the flow of money to Iran, which the US believes is illegal, and to increase the pressure on Tehran in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

According to the New York Times, however, Tehran and Washington are now on the verge of an informal agreement on the conflict over the nuclear program. Accordingly, indirect negotiations were started in December last year in New York, some of which have since been continued in Oman. The Sultan of Oman is considered an important mediator in the Gulf region.

Probably no return to the 2015 agreement

“This does not mean that the US and Iran will return to the 2015 nuclear deal,” Abdolrasool Divsallar, an expert on Iran’s foreign and defense policy, told DW. The visiting professor at the Cattolica del Sacro Cuore University in Milan points out that Iran has developed its nuclear program in recent years and will not scale it back now. “What the US wants is Iran’s full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and transparency regarding Iran’s nuclear program. This allows you to better assess this program. For example, how long it would take Iran to build a nuclear bomb if the country’s political leadership decided to do so.”

After the US pulled out of the nuclear deal under President Trump in 2018, Iran gradually backed away from its commitments and now has 23 times the amount of enriched uranium agreed in the 2015 international nuclear deal.

Iran can produce 80% uranium

In addition, Iran now appears to be able to enrich uranium up to 80 percent. In February 2023, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that particles of 83.7 percent enriched uranium had been found in Iran. This is just short of the 90 percent enrichment required for nuclear weapons. The Iranian authorities told the IAEA at the time that the extremely high level of enrichment was an “unintended fluctuation”.

The head of the Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, traveled to Iran in March 2023 and agreed with the Iranian government on increased surveillance of the nuclear facilities and investigations at formerly secret nuclear sites. “There has been some progress, but not as much as I had hoped,” the IAEA chief said in early June.

According to media reports, the USA is now trying to contain the Iranian nuclear program through unofficial negotiations. According to the New York Times, Iran should limit its uranium enrichment to the current production level of 60 percent and increase its cooperation with international nuclear inspectors. In return, for example, the US economic sanctions should not be further tightened.

Has the escalation spiral come to an end?

“After a year and a half of negotiations, it seemed that both sides had realized that no more than this could be achieved,” said Iran expert Divsallar. “Iran cannot continue to provoke, because the next step would be uranium enrichment to 90 percent and the construction of a nuclear bomb. That would bring the escalation to the highest level, also in the region. At the same time, the Iranian government is trying to get closer to neighboring Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Unlike the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s Arab neighbors are not opposed to the current negotiations.”

Mediated by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are aiming to normalize their relationship after seven years of ice age. The Saudi foreign minister traveled to Tehran on June 17 and stressed the crucial importance of security for countries in the region.

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