The official, briefing reporters in Geneva on Wednesday evening on condition of anonymity, declined to spell out exactly what that step would entail.
“I’m not going to discuss the specifics of what we would like the Iranians to agree to in a first step or in a final step, except to say we want to resolve all of the international community’s concerns.
“And I’m not going to detail the discussions we’re having in these negotiations, but the bottom line remains that Iran’s actions have to be entirely verifiable and ultimately address all of our concerns about their nuclear program,” the official said.
The official did confirm, without elaborating, that the first step would involve questions of uranium enrichment levels and stockpiles, as well as verification and monitoring.
Exactly what sanctions would be eased under this offer was also not disclosed, although the official said that the “core sanctions architecture remains for a final agreement, not a first step. Iran knows that. We’ve been quite explicit about it.”
The administration official implied that a complete suspension of enrichment – a demand contained in several U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006 – would not be part of the envisaged first step.
“The United States does not believe there is an inherent right [in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] to enrichment, and we have said that repeatedly to Iran.”
However, the official continued, “they currently have an enrichment program. Whether one thinks they have a right to it or not, it is true – they have one right now. So what we are trying to do in the first step is to make sure that that program that they have, and their nuclear program as it’s currently constructed, does not continue to advance during a period of time during which we could come to a comprehensive agreement that would address all of the concerns of the international community.”
Asked whether the administration could countenance a final agreement that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium – a number of countries have programs but to not enrich at home – the official said, “We have not gotten to the end of this story.”
The official recalled that U.N. Security Council resolutions “called for the suspension of Iran’s enrichment program because they had not met their international obligations and responsibilities. All of this has to be addressed. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
‘Military action, tougher sanctions won’t work’
Thursday’s talks bringing together Iran and the “P5+1” group of the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany follow an earlier round last month – the first under the administration of President Hasan Rouhani – which negotiators characterized as promising.
Bipartisan legislation passed by the House over the summer would tightens the sanctions regime by compelling steep additional reductions on the purchase of Iranian crude, broaden the range of targeted sectors of Iran’s economy, and bar entry to U.S. ports of any ship registered in a country that also registers Iranian vessels.
It is now before a Senate committee and the administration has – successfully thus far – persuaded it not to move to mark up.
In arguing for the sanctions “pause” to allow diplomacy to proceed, the senior administration official briefing in Geneva contended that the alternatives of tougher sanctions or military action would not achieve the end goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
The “not very attractive” option of military action “would not end, in our view, Iran’s nuclear program. It would set it back, but it would not end it. And so that’s one option that has also potential consequences beyond what anybody might predict.”
As for toughened sanctions, imposing them at a time when Iran has entered serious negotiations would signal to negotiating partners that the U.S. was not serious, “because we’re willing to put the negotiation at risk by taking additional unilateral action.”
“It might have the counter-effect, which is to undermine the international sanctions regime as a result,” the official said. “And in fact, additional sanctions, certainly at least in the immediate term, will not stop Iran’s program, and what it will mean is that Iran’s program will simply keep moving forward.”