US weighs unfreezing $1 billion in Iranian funds

It is not clear whether the release of funds would be unilateral, but one line of thought is that this could serve as a useful goodwill gesture for Tehran, according to three people who were briefed on the internal considerations when the Vienna talks added to theirs second occur month with no concrete evidence of breakthrough. The Iranians continue to demand easing of sanctions in return for compliance with the nuclear deal.

However, the plan is facing opposition from Iranian hawks in Congress, who are privy to the discussions, a Republican Congress official said. The employee said some on Capitol Hill view the idea of ​​freeing up Iranian money as a concession that would reduce US leverage.

“If it demonstrates the kind of good faith that can lead to good faith on the Iranian side, then it may be a good step forward,” said Thomas Countryman, who served as US Secretary of State for International from 2011-2011 Security and non-proliferation functioned in 2017.

A Democratic adviser to Congress separately confirmed that the US negotiating team had recently spoken to Congress officials about humanitarian aid and how it works, including releasing funds for the Swiss Channel. A US official admitted the plan was being examined but said the main goal of US negotiators at the moment is mutual return to the nuclear deal.

Experts said another option would be for the US to allow the International Monetary Fund to approve Iran’s application for $ 5 billion to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. The Trump administration had tried to block this loan, arguing that Iran could divert funds to stimulate its economy.

“Reporting that we are weighing releasing Iranian funds as a unilateral gesture towards Tehran is not true, which we clarified before publication,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price. “As we said earlier, any significant US step should be part of a process in which both sides take action.”

CNN has asked the National Security Council for an opinion.

The debate underscores the sensitivity of the negotiations and has also exposed a disagreement between the White House and its chief envoy for the talks, Rob Malley, as the new administration tries to reconcile negotiations with domestic political considerations.

Malley has been pushing for funds not to be frozen and used for humanitarian purposes for several months, people familiar with the effort said. However, the White House had been reluctant to release money before progress was made in resuming the joint comprehensive plan of action, the official name for the Iranian nuclear deal, a source familiar with the matter said.

Appearance and political considerations also played a role. Then-President Barack Obama met fierce opposition from Republicans when it became known that his administration had transferred around US $ 1.7 billion to Iran in early 2016. Then as now, the money technically belonged to Iran anyway and did not come from American taxpayers. But the backlash was swift, and former President Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the decision, both on campaign and in office. He finally withdrew the US from the Iran deal in 2018 and imposed new sanctions, which Iran had requested to be lifted completely before the country will return to complying with the nuclear deal.

Debates on the thawing of the funds are also taking place amid fading optimism that there will be a talks breakthrough and a full return to the nuclear deal ahead of the Iranian elections in June, according to those familiar with the deliberations of what could lead to it that the hardliners in the country are gaining more power and therefore making it more difficult to conclude an agreement with the US.

A senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters ahead of a new round of talks in Vienna on Friday, said negotiations so far had “helped crystallize the decisions” that both Iran and the US must take. The official said a return to the deal could be “relatively quick” as “we are not inventing anything new” but that progress “is ultimately a matter of political choice that must be made in Iran”.

Pro-Iranian media reported last weekend that the US had agreed to release Iranian funds totaling US $ 7 billion and to arrange a prisoner exchange as part of the negotiations. However, the State Department rejected the prisoner exchange reports as false, and a senior official told reporters Thursday that those responsible for the leak were guilty of “unspeakable cruelty”. The department hasn’t weighed reports that the U.S. was thawing funds, but a source briefed on the talks said the $ 7 billion figure was wrong.

At the same time, the White House is under pressure to proceed cautiously from Israel, which sent a delegation to Washington last week to discuss, among other things, the ongoing Iran deal talks. In a brief meeting with Biden last week, Israeli intelligence official Yossi Cohen reiterated what Israel has said publicly, a person familiar with the meeting said: He believes Iran cannot be trusted and that the US cannot be trusted Nuclear weapons should return deal.

Biden reiterated his commitment to US-Israel relations, reassuring Cohen that the US is viewing a return to the deal only as a starting point for further discussions about extending and strengthening its terms to ultimately include borders for other areas of Iran’s malevolent behavior in the region.

“With regard to Iran, there was clear and consistent communication between the Biden government and the Israeli government at all levels,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who served as Sen at the time. Kamala Harris’ National Security Advisor.

“The Biden government and the Israeli government share the fundamental goal of denying Iran a nuclear weapon capability, which is fueling President Biden’s efforts to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA,” Soifer said, adding that she believes that the Biden-Cohen meeting took place a “positive development”.

Axios reported earlier this week that Biden Cohen announced that a US-Iran deal was not imminent. And on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said so publicly.

“There is still a long way to go to fill the remaining gaps,” Sullivan told ABC News in the talks between the US and Iran. “These loopholes concern the sanctions that the United States and other countries will be rolling back. They concern the nuclear restrictions that Iran will accept in its program to ensure they can never get a nuclear weapon. So the short answer is, there is no deal. ” now.”

CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.