Lausanne: The United States and Iran are drafting elements of a nuclear deal that commits Tehran to a 40 per cent cut in the number of machines it could use to make an atomic bomb, officials told The Associated Press today.
In return, the Iranians would get quick relief from some crippling economic sanctions and a partial lift of a UN embargo on conventional arms.
Agreement on Iran's uranium enrichment program could signal a breakthrough for a larger deal aimed at containing the Islamic Republic's nuclear activities.
The sides are racing to meet a March 31 deadline for a framework pact and a full agreement by the end of June even as the US Congress keeps up pressure on the administration to avoid any agreement leaving Iran with an avenue to become a nuclear power.
Officials said the tentative deal imposes at least a decade of new limits on the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to enrich uranium, a process that can lead to nuclear weapons-grade material. The sides are zeroing in on a cap of 6,000 centrifuges, officials said, down from the 6,500 they spoke of in recent weeks.
That's also fewer than the 10,000 such machines Tehran now runs, yet substantially more than the 500 to 1,500 that Washington originally wanted as a ceiling. Only a year ago, US officials floated 4,000 as a possible compromise.
But US officials insist the focus on centrifuge numbers alone misses the point. Combined with other restrictions on enrichment levels and the types of centrifuges Iran can use, Washington believes it can extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear weapon to at least a year.
Right now, Iran would require only two to three months to amass enough material to make a bomb.
The pressure in Congress on the administration over Iran remained intense, with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying he would move ahead with legislation giving lawmakers a say over any nuclear deal. And 360 House Republicans and Democrats more than enough to override any presidential veto sent a letter to Obama saying if an agreement is reached, Congress will decide on easing sanctions it has imposed.
"Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb, and only then will Congress be able to consider permanent sanctions relief," the lawmakers wrote.
Rep Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told administration officials at a hearing today that Congress cannot be marginalized and "any attempts to sidestep Congress will be resisted on both sides of the aisle."