Signaling a potential key compromise in negotiations with Iran, the White House said Monday that it might be willing to start providing sanctions relief as soon as Tehran begins putting in place new curbs on its nuclear program.
The Obama administration and Iran have been at odds over how quickly sanctions will begin to be lifted once Iran and six world powers, including the United States, complete the nuclear deal they have been negotiating for 19 months.
Tehran has insisted that the tough penalties on Iran should come off as soon as a deal begins to be implemented. U.S. officials have demanded that relief should be delayed until Iran completes curbs intended to keep it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The issue represents the largest obstacle remaining in the effort to reach a comprehensive deal by June 30.
But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the administration might be willing to accelerate some of the relief.
Sanctions relief can start "once Iran has begun taking the tangible, measurable, verifiable steps that they commit to as it relates to curtailing and limiting their nuclear program," he said.
Earnest said the "crux" of the next 10 weeks of negotiations would be bargaining over "what steps do they have to start taking in order to start receiving some of the sanctions relief?"
The U.S. and the five other world powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- have contended that they want to phase in sanctions relief as Iran completes its obligations under the deal. But Iranian officials, including the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have insisted that their demand for an upfront lifting of punishments is nonnegotiable.
At a news conference Friday, President Obama said he was prepared to be flexible, and called on U.S. negotiators to be "creative" in looking for ways to satisfy both sides. He said the administration's "main concern" was that it should be able to restore the sanctions quickly if Iran didn't live up to its commitments.
Analysts say Iran and the United States are under political pressure to "front load" the deal with benefits to show they have won favorable terms. Iran wants sanctions relief that would give its struggling economy a quick economic surge, and the administration wants to be able to show Americans it has wrested important nuclear concessions from Tehran.
Still, a compromise that grants Iran quick concession is likely to face criticism from skeptics about the deal. Many believe that the United States and the other world powers have been too lenient already.
Administration officials Monday denied reports that they were planning to allow Iran to bring home $50 billion of the more than $100 billion in overseas frozen assets as soon as the deal is signed.
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