With Iran nuclear deal, Obama hopes to end decades of mistrust

The agreement designed to freeze critical elements of Iran’s nuclear program is an important first step in President Obama’s effort to end decades of troubled relations between the US and Iran.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House Saturday evening in Washington about the nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran that calls on Tehran to limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.

The deal that world powers reached with Iran on its nuclear program constitutes a “first step” – and not just toward the goal of preventing Iran from being able to build a nuclear weapon.

The interim accord reached early Sunday in Geneva is also a critical piece of progress in President Obama’s efforts – present from Day One of his presidency – to resolve through diplomacy Iran’s nuclear challenge and more than three decades of cold-war-like US-Iran relations.

As such, Sunday’s agreement, designed to freeze critical elements of Iran’s nuclear program and to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear-weapons capability for a six-month period of negotiations on a comprehensive accord, is a major victory for a beleaguered president.

But no one is calling Sunday’s breakthrough anything more than a first step on either path.

Despite how once-rare American-Iranian contacts appeared to become almost regular in the weeks of Geneva negotiations, neither side in the US-Iran equation sees decades of tension and mistrust easing quickly. At the same time, the nuclear diplomacy will only become more difficult as the US and other world powers seek to persuade Iran not just to freeze but also to give up major elements of its program.

“This is a potentially significant moment, but I’m not going to stand here in some triumphal moment and suggest to you that this is an end unto itself,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in addressing reporters early Sunday morning in Geneva. “It’s not.”

Mr. Obama jumped at the opportunity to highlight what administration officials and many prominent foreign-policy experts see as a victory for his approach to Iran, sounding an encouraging though cautious note in a televised statement from the White House.

“Today … diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. 

But several key US allies, including Israel, were dismayed by Obama’s embrace of a short-term deal with Iran. Some members of Congress lost no time in vowing to pursue additional sanctions to try to force much deeper concessions from Iran – a move that would undermine the interim deal with Iran and that could potentially scuttle the negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear accord.

Obama was already fitting attempts at damage control into his Sunday schedule: He was scheduled to speak by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to senior administration officials, and to begin placing calls to a list of members of Congress.

To make the case that its “tough diplomacy” is succeeding with Iran where the decades of a standoff have not, the administration is citing and repeating some key figures concerning Iran’s nuclear program.

In his remarks in Geneva, Secretary Kerry underscored the fact that in 2003 – when the Bush administration turned down Iran’s offer to come to a deal on its nuclear program – Iran had just 164 centrifuges, the machines that spin uranium to create fuel for nuclear energy plants but also toward the higher levels of purity required for nuclear weapons.

Today, Kerry said, Iran has 19,000 centrifuges spinning.

Under the deal struck Sunday, he added, Iran agrees to suspend all enrichment of uranium above the 5 percent level used for nuclear power generation, and over the course of the six-month interim agreement is to reduce “to zero” its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – a level that is just steps from the purity required for fueling a nuclear weapon.  

As a result, Kerry said, the interim deal “enlarges the breakout time” for Iran to be able to move quickly to build a nuclear weapon – a window of time he indicated had considerably narrowed since “the previous administration” had said no to diplomacy.

In exchange for agreeing to a program freeze, Iran is to receive about $7 billion in sanctions relief, much of which would come in the form of unfrozen oil revenues held overseas.

Critics of Obama’s efforts at engagement with Iran counter with numbers of their own. They emphasize that Iran had just 2,000 centrifuges spinning in 2009, when Obama famously extended the hand of diplomacy to Tehran – and that many of the thousands of additional centrifuges installed since then are of a much more technologically advanced model.

In addition, they note that Iran had barely enough low-enriched uranium for creating the fuel for one nuclear weapon when Obama became president, while its stockpile of low-enriched uranium has roughly quadrupled since then.

As a bipartisan group of senators lamented in a letter to Obama last week, the interim agreement does not require Iran to meet the demands of a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which call for suspension of all uranium enrichment activities.

That point was seized upon by skeptical members of Congress, many of whom have criticized Obama in recent days for being, in their view, so anxious to pronounce his extended-hand approach to Iran a success that striking some deal in Geneva became the priority.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois said in a statement that the deal calls for only “cosmetic concessions” from “the world’s leading sponsor of state terrorism” even as Iran would “neither fully freeze nor significantly roll back its nuclear infrastructure.”

And California Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that “we are the ones doing the dismantling” – of sanctions “built up over the years” – while “Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability.”

Still, many nonproliferation experts praised the accord as a major plus for global security – even as they cautioned that long-term easing of nuclear proliferation tendencies would be addressed only by a comprehensive deal with Iran.

“Freezing Iran’s nuclear program is a major first step toward stopping it completely,” says Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation advocacy organization in Washington.

Calling the accord a “strong deal that advances American security interests in the region,” he says that the six months of negotiations must proceed toward “a complete end to Iran’s nuclear program.”

That sounds different from Obama’s goal of assuring that “Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful,” however. It’s that goal of negotiating a comprehensive deal – one that assures that an Iran that maintains its uranium enrichment program never gets the bomb – that will keep critics nipping at Obama’s heels.

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