Reaching a long-sought milestone in a bid to elevate diplomacy over war, Iran and six world powers have agreed on the parameters of a deal that strictly limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
The breakthrough came after marathon talks marked by brinksmanship, threats, and bursts of anger from the exhausted negotiators in cloistered rooms in Lausanne’s opulent Beau Rivage hotel.
Yet as details emerged late Thursday of a complex agreement to increase Iran’s “breakout time” – the period it would take to acquire enough nuclear material for a single atomic bomb – from the current estimated 2 to 3 months to a year, the relief was palpable and the superlatives flew.
The resulting “framework” deal depends on a complex blend of political decisions and technical wizardry, enabling all sides to claim a degree of victory, or at least that they were not defeated. The most severe restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity would be imposed for 10 years, with some measures lasting a quarter century and beyond.
But the relief on negotiators’ faces masked the knowledge that an enormous amount of detailed work is still required to reach a comprehensive accord by a self-imposed June 30 deadline and overcome political challenges in both the United States and Iran.
“In the end, this success is not final, but it is a substantial achievement,” says Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Finding a mutually acceptable formula on all the seemingly intractable issues on the table was no easy feat.”
“This is fragile, but unlike previous agreements in the past 12 years is not a short-term fix,” says Mr. Vaez. “Once developed into a fully-fledged agreement, this understanding can put an end to the prolonged nuclear crisis.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama hailed a “historic understanding” that will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.” The deal, he said, addressing skeptics, “is not based on trust, it’s based on unprecedented verification.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described a “win-win outcome” for all sides, and Tweeted: “Solutions found.”
“We have stopped a cycle [of escalation] that was not in the interest of anybody,” said Mr. Zarif. “I hope that at the end of this process, we will all show that through dialogue, and engagement with dignity, we can resolve problems.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose final, record-breaking all-night session with Zarif ended at 5:53am Thursday, said gaps remained but that a “solid foundation” had been agreed upon to give “confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful.”
The key calculation has eluded negotiators for years: Finding a mutually acceptable balance between the numbers and efficiency of Iran’s centrifuges – and other components of its nuclear program – and how quickly and reversibly sanctions will be removed. The centrifuges are tall cylindrical machines used in a process called enrichment, in which rotors spin uranium gas at supersonic speeds to harvest the heavier isotopes useful in nuclear reactors or, at higher levels of purity, in nuclear weapons.
So what are the “key parameters” now meant to frame a final deal, and how far have all sides come to get there?
Iran achieved a primary objective – implicit acceptance it could enrich uranium on its own soil – with the Geneva interim agreement of November 2013. Under that deal, which remains in force, Iran halted its most sensitive nuclear work in exchange for partial relief from sanctions.
But the current compromise is severe for both sides: Iran now has some 10,000 spinning centrifuges out of a total of 19,000 installed, and previously had insisted on keeping them all. For years the US insisted that Iran give them all up, then offered it keep a token 500.
The framework deal settles on 6,104 centrifuges installed, with 5,060 at a single site, Natanz, allowed to enrich uranium. For 10 years, Iran will only be able to use first-generation machines, with 1,000 more efficient second-generation centrifuges mothballed during that time.
A climb-down by both sides requires spin: Zarif states that “we will continue enrichment,” while Mr. Kerry describes “dramatic changes” to the “vast majority” of Iran’s centrifuges.
Among the thorniest issues addressed this week by Iran and the P5+1 powers – the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and China – was the speed and pace of relief for Iran from a raft of United Nations, US, and European sanctions on its economy.
Iranian leaders have insisted that all sanctions be lifted “immediately” in any deal. But Western leaders, convinced that sanctions are what brought Iran to the negotiating table – an assertion Iran rejects – are reluctant to give up too much too soon.
According to a joint Iran/EU statement, the EU will “terminate” all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions – which include an oil embargo – and the US will “cease the application” of nuclear-related sanctions “simultaneously,” when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, verifies Iran’s steps.
A new UN Security Council resolution would “terminate all previous nuclear-related resolutions” – but add certain “restrictive measures.”
Already different interpretations are emerging: Kerry said the US expected Iran to move “very rapidly” – between four months to a year – to speed up sanctions relief. Yet Kerry also said verification of Iran’s moves would only initiate a “phasing of the sanctions” and that they could “snap back” if there were non-compliance.
Research & development
This issue barely featured in initial rounds, but then began at opposite ends of the spectrum. Iran says it can’t forever use only 1970s technology – the vintage of its problem-prone IR-1 centrifuge – and wants to develop more efficient models up to the IR-8.
The deal enables Iran to continue limited research on all its most sophisticated centrifuge models, according to parameters agreed with the P5+1, but not to enrich uranium with them for 10 years.
“We will continue researching,” Zarif said of the deal. Advanced centrifuge work would be done “on a scheduled basis that is commensurate with our own scientific requirements.”
Stockpiles of enriched uranium
The most pressing stockpile issue was dealt with under the 2013 Geneva deal, which required Iran to dilute or turn into nuclear fuel its 200 kilograms (440 lbs) of uranium enriched to 20 percent – a level a few technical steps away from weapons-grade 90 percent.
And yet Iran has also accumulated 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium purified to 5 percent, which is suitable for nuclear fuel, but also can be a shortcut to any “breakout” scenario.
The framework requires Iran to dispose of 97 percent of this stockpile by selling or diluting the remainder, or converting it to nuclear fuel, and then capping it at 300 kg for 15 years. Likewise, Iran agrees to cap enrichment levels at 3.67 percent for 15 years.
Compromises have also been reached on two issues that overshadowed earlier stages of talks. One is Fordow, a fortified facility buried deep in a mountain. In early 2012, the P5+1 demanded that Iran stop 20 percent enrichment there, shut the facility, and export all that enriched material – a policy shorthanded by diplomats as “stop, shut, ship.”
The deals states that Fordow is to be converted into a research center expected to work on medical isotopes that have no military application. Uranium enrichment and the presence of fissile material will be forbidden for 15 years, though 1,000 centrifuges will remain in place.
Likewise, Iran’s still-unfinished heavy water reactor at Arak is to be modified so that its core yields no plutonium – another possible pathway to a weapon. Iran has agreed to never build a processing facility necessary to make any plutonium weapons-usable.
Iran’s compliance with any final deal is to be monitored by more intrusive inspections by the IAEA. Iran is already the nation most heavily monitored by the IAEA, but Iran would accept the Additional Protocol – permanently enabling no notice, anywhere inspections.
Inspectors are to monitor Iran’s centrifuge rotor and bellows production for 20 years, and Iran’s uranium mines and mills for 25 years.
“We didn’t put all of this time and energy, and many sleepless nights, to write a piece of paper … that we are going to just look for an excuse to violate and abandon,” said Zarif. “I hope this will be the basis of serious work in the years ahead.”