Illustration by KL./

By Samia Nakhoul, Andrew Mills and Parisa Hafezi

 – Qatar wants to capitalise on a U.S.-Iranian detainee deal that it mediated during months of delicate diplomacy to find common ground on a more intractable issue between the two hardened adversaries: the dispute over Iran‘s nuclear programme.

Russia’s war in Ukraine may have top billing at the U.N. General Assembly, but Iran‘s nuclear ambitions cast a shadow over the Middle East and worry the West. And as the dispute rumbles on, Tehran has steadily enriched more uranium and moved closer to Moscow by supplying drones to Russia’s army.

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A nuclear deal with Iran remains a distant prospect, five years after former President Donald Trump tore up a pact that had eased sanctions in return for Tehran curbing nuclear work.

A U.S. election in 2024 makes those prospects bleaker still. U.S. President Joe Biden has already faced Republican criticism for unfreezing $6 billion of Iran‘s assets in the detainee deal.

Yet Qatar, a tiny but hugely rich Gulf Arab state with grand diplomatic ambitions, is pressing both sides to engage in more talks and reach “understandings”, according to three regional sources familiar with discussions that Doha has held separately with both sides.

The understandings would aim to address slowing Tehran’s uranium enrichment alongside more international monitoring, curbing activities of Iran‘s proxy militias in the region and halting Iran‘s drone exports, all in return for some waivers on U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports, the three sources said.

Officials in Doha said Qatari officials would hold separate meetings with Iranian and U.S. officials at the U.N. meeting in New York this week. One source briefed on the talks said those meetings would include discussing enrichment and Iranian drones.

If there is progress, Qatar aims to host indirect talks between Tehran and Washington, the source said, after Qatar helped forge the detainee deal with shuttle diplomacy between Iranian and U.S. negotiators staying in separate hotels in Doha.

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The idea of understandings to prevent an escalation rather than a nuclear agreement requiring review by U.S. Congress has previously been mooted, Western and Iranian officials have said. U.S. officials have never acknowledged pursuing such an approach.

Washington suspects Tehran wants technology to build a nuclear weapon. Iran insists this has never been its goal.

On Monday, when the U.S.-Iranian detainee swap took place, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the door open to diplomacy on the nuclear file, which he described as “perhaps the number one issue of concern”, but said nothing was imminent.

“In this moment, we’re not engaged on that, but we’ll see in the future if there are opportunities,” he said in New York, in his response to a question about whether there could be more indirect talks with Iran soon.

Two Iranian insiders said there would be indirect meetings between Tehran and Washington in New York that could pave the way for talks on a nuclear “understanding”. They said Iran had never shut the door to nuclear diplomacy.

Another Iranian insider briefed on discussions so far with Qatar said: “Considering the upcoming U.S. elections, it is possible to reach an understanding that will involve issuing waivers on banking and oil sectors that would allow Iran to export its oil freely and get its money back via the banking system” – currently barred by existing U.S. sanctions.

Asked on Sunday if there would be any indirect talks with the Iranians at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a senior U.S. administration official said: “You asked if there’s any talks planned this week, absolutely not.”

It was unclear if the official meant to deny any indirect talks, or if he was deliberately leaving the door open for them.

The U.S. Department of State did not respond to detailed questions for this article.

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Discussing any engagement with Iran is sensitive in the United States, whose relations to the Islamic Republic remain overshadowed by the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

U.S. officials were tight-lipped on details of Monday’s detainee deal until the five freed Americans had taken off from Tehran airport.

Earlier indirect talks in Qatar that led to that detainee swap were held after broader talks on Iran‘s nuclear programme stumbled, sources previously told Reuters. At that time, Iran demanded guarantees that a new deal would not be torn up again, a demand that an Iranian source said had now been dropped.

The three regional sources said Iranian officials in talks had shown signs they were ready for concessions, if U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran‘s economy were eased.

The three regional sources said Tehran had already committed to lowering enrichment of uranium to 60% – below the roughly 90% needed for a nuclear weapon – and was ready to resume cooperation with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which monitors Iran‘s nuclear work.

IAEA reports seen by Reuters this month said Iran had already reduced the rate at which it was making uranium enriched to 60%, although its stockpile continued to grow.

Regional diplomats said that, in another positive signal, there had been no major attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. interests or those of its allies in the region in recent months. The last major incident was in Syria in March, when the Pentagon blamed Iran-backed militants for an attack on U.S. forces there.

Much, however, may hinge on next year’s U.S. election, when Biden, a Democrat, may once again be battling Trump, who is for now in the lead for the Republican nomination.

“What’s in it for Washington to sweeten the pot for Tehran before the elections, especially in a fiercely competitive race where Republican rivals will pounce on any deal that appears to compromise American interests,” said one diplomat.

Yet the West remains concerned about Iran‘s nuclear work. The 2015 agreement, which Trump called “the worst deal ever”, mothballed enough of Iran‘s nuclear programme to put it a year or so away from technology to build a bomb, experts have said.

“When nobody wants a crisis then it’s good time to negotiate between now and the U.S. elections,” said a senior diplomat in the region.

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