U.S. officials: Nuclear deal offers Iran only minor relief

Obama administration hopes agreement can be finalized next week

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WASHINGTON — Iran would get only minor relief from economic sanctions under an international proposal to prevent it from producing nuclear weapons, two Obama administration officials said Friday, seeking to calm concerns in Israel and on Capitol Hill that the U.S. and its allies are giving away too much to Tehran.

While playing down the sanctions relief being discussed, the administration was hoping it would be enough to finalize an initial agreement with Iran next week in Geneva.

Last week's negotiations failed to reach an agreement between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — that would resolve a decade-long standoff over Iran's nuclear program. The countries worry that Tehran is trying to assemble an atomic weapons arsenal. Iran insists it has a right to pursue a nuclear program solely for peaceful energy production and medical research

Obama administration officials are optimistic that an initial deal with Iran can be reached during the next round of talks, although tough issues remain unresolved. The initial deal, designed to stop the Iranian nuclear program from advancing and roll it back in key areas, would be the first step toward negotiating a comprehensive agreement. The initial agreement would include stepped-up monitoring and verification aimed at preventing Iran from doing anything in secret.

One official familiar with the negotiations said the sanctions relief being offered to Iran was "way south" of "wildly exaggerated" estimates that have been reported, which have ranged from $15 billion to $50 billion.

Another official, who is familiar with details of the sanctions relief being considered, said the relief being discussed as part of an initial six-month agreement would be "limited, temporary, targeted and reversible."

The officials would not disclose the exact details of the proposal offered Iran because negotiations have not yet been concluded, but they offered explanations on the implications of what sanction relief is being discussed.

Sanctions have taken a toll on Iran's economy. Last year, Iran's economy contracted by more than 5 percent and Iran's oil exports are down from about 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to about 1 million barrels a day now. These declining exports cost Iran about $5 billion a month and overall about $120 billion during the past several years.

Sanctions also have limited or barred Iran's access to about $100 billion in reserves, the official familiar with the sanctions said. If the agreement allows Iran to repatriate some of that money during the initial phase, it would not be anywhere near enough to ease the effect of sanctions on the Iranian economy, the official said. Moreover, core sanctions, such as the U.S. trade embargo, restrictions on Iranian banks and Iran's use of its oil revenues, will all remain in place as well as sanctions over Iran's support of terrorism and abuse of human rights.