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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In their meeting last Thursday in Berlin, U.S. and European diplomats tabled drafts for an agreement which will not nix the Iran nuclear deal or renegotiate it but still substantively turn on the pressure on the Iranian regime. A senior European diplomat who participated in the talks told me that the gaps between the U.S. and the three European powers are actually closing.

But, but, but: The French, Germans and the Brits think the chances of finding a formula which will satisfy Trump are very slim. This assessment is shared by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior figures in Washington like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

Why it matters: Senior diplomats from the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K. are engaged in intense negotiations over the last two months in an attempt to save the Iran nuclear deal from collapsing.

They met in London, Paris and Berlin, with a very low public profile and close to zero leaks, and tried to reach a deal. They are trying to please Donald Trump, who is unhappy with the talks that took place with the Europeans so far and is still threatening to withdraw from the deal on May 12.

The status of the talks, according to the senior European diplomat:

  • The U.S. and the European powers are close to an agreement on sanctions against Iran's intercontinental ballistic missiles program. The agreement is on long range missile with a range of 1200 miles and above.
  • The gaps were narrowed on sanctions against the Iranian activity in the Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
  • Considerable progress was made towards an agreement between the U.S. and the Europeans on strengthening U.N. inspections of suspicious nuclear sites in Iran.  
  • Big gaps remain on the U.S. demand to significantly fix the "Sunset clause" in the nuclear deal which says that the limitations on the Iranian nuclear program will start to be lifted nine years from now. The European powers say that "fixing" this part of the deal will mean renegotiating it, which they strongly oppose.

What's next: During the Berlin meeting last Thursday the British, German and French negotiators asked the U.S. delegation if it actually has a mandate from the president to reach a deal, especially after the ouster of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was the main supporter in the administration of keeping the Iran deal.  

What I'm hearing: The European diplomat told me that State Department's policy planning director Brian Hook and representatives of the White House said Trump is committed to trying to reach an agreement with the three European powers that will enable the U.S. to stay part of the Iran deal. According to the European diplomat the U.S. team stressed that they are planning to continue negotiating until May 12th.

"We are much closer to an agreement with the U.S. delegation than we have ever thought we will be. We are not optimistic but we keep trying. It's like a roulette with a 50:50 chance. But our fear is that even if we get a deal with the American negotiators there is a big chance that Trump will just tear it up and announce he is withdrawing from the deal"
— The European diplomat

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The House plans to renovate members' suites even though staff are worried about an influx of contractors and D.C. is tightening restrictions on large gatherings, some staffers told Axios.

Why it matters: The Capitol has been closed to public tours since March. Work over the holiday season comes as U.S. coronavirus cases spike, Americans beg for more pandemic assistance and food lines grow.

Trump pressures Barr to release so-called Durham report

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President Trump and his allies are piling extreme pressure on Attorney General Bill Barr to release a report that Trump believes could hurt perceived Obama-era enemies — and view Barr's designation of John Durham as special counsel as a stall tactic, sources familiar with the conversations tell Axios.

Why it matters: Speculation over Barr's fate grew on Tuesday, with just 49 days remaining in Trump's presidency, after Barr gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he said the Justice Department has not uncovered evidence of widespread fraud that could change the election's outcome.

CDC to cut guidance on quarantine period for coronavirus exposure

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The CDC will soon shorten its guidance for quarantine periods following exposure to COVID-19, AP reported Tuesday and Axios can confirm.

Why it matters: Quarantine helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which can occur before a person knows they're sick or if they're infected without feeling any symptoms. The current recommended period to stay home if exposed to the virus is 14 days. The CDC plans to amend this to 10 days or seven with a negative test, an official told Axios.

  • The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.