ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — As they prepared to resume nuclear negotiations with Iran, U.S. officials insisted that a surge in Iranian oil sales and talk of big Iran-Russia petroleum deals posed no threat to the oil sanctions program on Iran.
A senior U.S. official told reporters Monday evening in Vienna that the negotiations on a deal curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be a “complicated, difficult and lengthy process.” Like Iranian officials, the U.S. official said obstacles to a deal were substantial and chances of success not high.
But the official said the recent rise in Iran’s oil sales did not threaten to collapse the sanctions program; the program foresees such periodic rises in exports, according to the American.
Iranian officials’ announcement about a possible oil barter deal with Russia was not a threat, the official insisted. It would be difficult and time-consuming to negotiate such a deal, the official said, while warning that U.S. officials would impose penalties on it if it violated sanctions.
The rising oil sales and news of deal-making with the Russians would have “no impact in particular,” the official said.
Many foreign businesses are trying to get in line to trade with Iran if a deal is completed, the official acknowledged. But if these companies seek to evade sanctions, “We will find them,” the American said.
Negotiators from six world powers and Iran are meeting for three days this week in the Austrian capital to begin negotiations are that are expected to take six months to a year, or longer. They are aiming for a “comprehensive” deal that will limit Iran to nonmilitary uses of nuclear energy, in exchange for a lifting of tough international sanctions on its economy.
The U.S. official said there won’t be a separate secret channel of behind-the-scenes U.S.-Iran meetings, as there were last year, when the two countries were trying to set up the negotiations. The negotiations are to be directed by the six-nation group, led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
But the official said U.S. officials are likely to be regularly in touch with their Iranian counterparts through email if they need to deal with issues in the negotiations.
“We all, when we need to solve problems with the Iranians, email with the Iranians,” the official said.
The three days of talks will include discussions of the schedule of negotiations and what issues need to be dealt with, officials said.
Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Mehdi Sanaei, said Monday that the two countries were discussing a deal in which Iran would provide several hundred thousand barrels a day of oil in exchange for a new civil nuclear power plant, small refineries, grain trucks or other products.
Such a deal could bring Iran $1.5 billion a month, easing pressure on its economy and reducing the incentive for its negotiators to make concessions for a deal, said analyst Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group.
He said the Russian proposal was probably intended to lay the groundwork for a push to ease sanctions if the negotiations began to stumble.
Talks of such country-to-country deals builds pressure toward an easing of sanctions and thus strengthens Iran’s hand going into the negotiation, Kupchan said.
But he said he viewed the talk as “political jockeying,” and views the chances of such a deal as still low.
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