Washington, Oct. 18: The Barack Obama administration is weighing a proposal to ease the pain of sanctions on Tehran by offering it access to billions of dollars in frozen funds if the Iranian government takes specific steps to curb its nuclear programme, a senior US official has said.
Such a plan, under which the US could free up Iran’s frozen overseas assets in instalments, would avoid the political and diplomatic risks of repealing the sanctions, which had been agreed to by a diverse coalition of countries, the official said.
It will also give President Obama the flexibility to respond to Iranian offers that emerge from the negotiations without unravelling the global sanctions regime the administration has spent years cobbling together.
The official likened the plan, which is still being debated inside the White House and the State Department, to opening and closing a financial spigot.
While two days of talks in Geneva this week did not produce a breakthrough, Iranian officials were more candid and substantive than in previous diplomatic encounters, officials said, particularly in direct negotiations between Iranian diplomats and the senior American representative, Wendy R. Sherman.
Now, though, the administration faces a complex calculation on the future of the sanctions, which have been crucial in bringing the Iranians back to the bargaining table.
Administration officials said they would urge the Senate to hold off on voting on a new bill to strangle Iran’s oil exports further until after the next round of talks on November 7.
That may be a tough case to make to lawmakers, given that Iran did not pledge to freeze its enrichment of uranium and offered no plan, publicly at least, to dismantle facilities, which state department officials cited as a justification for holding off on a sanctions vote before the first meeting.
Several senators issued statements saying the sanctions should go ahead.
Still, the positive tone of the talks — an American diplomat characterised them as “intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations” — has prompted new thinking in Washington about how to ease the pressure on Tehran, if not immediately, then down the road, if the Iranians make real concessions.
The proposal on freeing up funds has been championed by Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a public policy institute known for its hawkish views on Iran.
“My biggest concern is that if the administration takes out a brick from the sanctions regime, you won’t be able to put it back together,” Dubowitz said. He called the plan “a way to provide non-sanctions financial relief to give the administration flexibility during the negotiations.”