Iran and six world powers struck a historic deal Sunday morning to temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear program, hoping it will pave the way for a comprehensive agreement in six months that would render Iran incapable of building an atomic bomb.
The deal is the first significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear program in nearly a decade. But it also marks another milestone already impacting the Middle East: A first concrete test of the ability of Iran’s new centrist President Hassan Rouhani to fulfill his promise to end both “extremism” at home and nearly three decades of Iran's isolation abroad by reaching out to the West – changes that could begin to fundamentally alter Iran's global relations.
Both sides declared victory over the nuclear deal, struck on the fifth day of marathon talks in Geneva that brought together seven foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, and were brokered by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
A light-hearted tweet from one of Iran's senior negotiators helped break the news: "Day Five. 3am. Talks. White smoke," tweeted Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi.
The accord gives Iran up to $7 billion in sanctions relief in exchange for curtailing uranium enrichment and other steps to prevent expansion of its nuclear program. It is the first fruit of nearly two years of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany).
In Washington, President Barack Obama hailed the deal as “significant and tangible,” saying that “diplomacy opened up a new path to a world that is more secure.” Mr. Obama has faced fierce criticism over any deal from a hawkish Congress preparing new sanctions measures, the pro-Israel lobby, and US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, which fear a resurgent Iran.
In Tehran, Mr. Rouhani said the "enemy [failed] to promote Iranophobia," and that the world "came to understand that respecting the Iranian nation would bear results." Rouhani drew support from family members beside him of assassinated nuclear scientists, and wrote a letter of congratulations to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – whose “victory” in the talks was hailed on Iranian state TV.
The deal is “very significant because it puts more time on the proverbial nuclear clock, while at the same time each side can go back and declare victory,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“This in itself will result in the two sides being able to preserve this positive momentum, which is absolutely necessary for negotiating the comprehensive agreement, and for safeguarding the process from outside pressure, and from pressure from skeptics,” said Mr. Vaez in Geneva.
Political risks for everyone
Those skeptics about “victory” abound on both sides. The agreement presents serious political risks for the Iranians, who have paid a high price in cash and through harsh sanctions to create a sophisticated nuclear infrastructure. Rouhani will face criticism from hardliners who say Iran gave away too much, even though the deal leaves intact and working much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, though at a lower level.
The US and leaders from the other P5+1 countries also face pressure, as they have vowed that Iran will never get the bomb. Iran says it has no ambition to do so, and that this deal is a first step to prove it.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday's deal was an “opportunity to end an unnecessary crisis and open new horizons, based on respect for the rights of the Iranian people, and the removal of any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”
He also said that the agreement explicitly recognized twice that Iran had a right to enrich uranium in any final deal, a years-long sticking point.
The text of the four-page deal published by Fars News Agency states clearly that the final deal "would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency."
Kerry, however, said that "this first step does not say that Iran has a right to enrichment. No matter what interpretive comments are made, it is not in this document. The scope and role of Iran’s enrichment, as is set forth in the language within this document, says that Iran’s peaceful nuclear program is subject to a negotiation and to mutual agreement. And it can only be by mutual agreement that enrichment might or might not be able to be decided on in the course of negotiations."
The deal comes within the first 100 days since Rouhani’s initial cabinet meeting, a three-month period that has seen a substantial change in tone in Iran’s relations with the US – mutually hostile since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and the seizing of the US embassy and subsequent 444-day hostage crisis.
Since September, Rouhani and Zarif have tag-teamed on an Iranian charm offensive, trying to replace the unhappy memory of the bombastic former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with one of “new rationalism.” Initial unprecedented public contact between top US and Iranian officials during the UN annual meeting in New York led to a historic, 15-minute phone call between Obama and Rouhani.
Those events were aided by a series of secret face-to-face meetings between US and Iranian officials in the past year, conducted largely in Oman, the Associated Press reported.
This nuclear deal – which its proponents say eases the prospect of war, and partially fulfills Rouhani’s pledge to ease economic pain by paving the way for easing of sanctions that have stung Iran's economy – could well give a further boost to Rouhani’s political fortunes.
“We really can’t overstate how remarkable this has been,” says Reza Marashi, a former State Department Iran staffer who is now at the National Iranian American Council, a group that has campaigned against sanctions.
“Six months ago, pretty much any Iran analyst would have told you that this is not possible; not that diplomacy couldn’t succeed, if it was truly tried, but that neither side was willing to take the risks necessary to create a peaceful solution,” says Mr. Marashi. “And what a difference an Iranian president can make.”
“In return, we have to ask: What are the Iranians really getting?” says Mr. Marashi in Geneva, ticking off “very modest sanctions relief, access to their own money” – some cash from oil sales that is frozen in accounts outside Iran – and wording that Iran's nuclear "rights" would be respected. “So I think the Iranians right now are willing to lose small in order to win big, and the ‘win big’ part that they’re looking towards is the endgame – and I think the US is cognizant of that fact.”
Mr. Kerry said this morning the ultimate goal was a comprehensive, “fail-safe” deal six months from now that would virtually erase Iran’s future chances of getting a bomb, thereby benefiting everyone in the region, including Israel.
Kerry said the benefits instead favored the US and P5+1, because this first step “actually rolls back the program from where it is today, enlarges the break-out time – which would not have occurred, if this agreement did not exist. It will make our partners in the region safer; it will make our ally Israel safer.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begged to differ, repeating his claim today that the deal is a “historic mistake” that “made the world a much more dangerous place.” Two weeks ago he said caustically that such an agreement would be the “deal of the century for Iran.”
When asked about opposition to the deal from Israel and Saudi Arabia – both staunch rivals of Iran for decades – Mr. Zarif said “the agreement is geared toward solving a problem that has had its shadow cast over the entire world and over our region, so I cannot see any – any – justification whatsoever to be concerned.”
Key bargaining chip
The temporary deal requires Iran to halt all its uranium enrichment at 20 percent purity – Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work, which is a few technical steps away from bomb-grade – and convert its 200-kg stockpile into oxide for fuel that is unsuitable for weapons.
That bargaining chip was one of Iran’s most valuable, though Iran always said its purpose was to fuel Iran’s small Tehran research reactor.
That means, said Kerry, “that whereas Iran today has about 200 kg of 20-percent enriched uranium, that could readily be enriched towards a nuclear weapon, in six months Iran will have zero.”
Yet Iran is able to continue enriching uranium to below 5 percent purity – which is usable for reactor fuel – though not to increase its sizable stockpile of that material. Iran can continue work at its two primary enrichment facilities, even though the P5+1 had originally demanded that a small, deeply buried one at Fordow be shuttered.
But those facilities will now be subject to daily, instead of weekly, inspections, with video monitoring, and there will be new access to centrifuge production locations.
For the half-year time frame of the deal, Iran agrees not to add to the 19,500 or so centrifuges it has already installed, nor to turn on any of the roughly 11,000 of those not yet operating.
Iran will also stop building fuel assemblies for the Arak heavy water reactor, which is still under construction, effectively adding another six months to the two-year minimum time that it would take for that reactor to be finished and yield enough plutonium for a bomb, even if Iran had a facility to reprocess it.
Building can continue, but no critical components – which are currently missing – can be installed.
“For the Iranian government, it is their responsibility to recognize that this first phase [deal] is a very simple test,” said Kerry. “Folks, it is not hard to prove peaceful intent, if that’s what you want to do.”
A big step for Iran
Zarif said the deal was an achievement for Iran, because it avoids any new sanctions for six months, will yield access to some proceeds that are currently frozen from oil sales, and ease sanctions on precious metal and petrochemical exports, and on car and airplane parts.
A “humanitarian corridor” will also be set up, enabling items that are not sanctioned – such as medical and agricultural goods, and food – to more easily get through strict banking restrictions. Some $400 million in government-assisted tuition costs will also be allowed to be used for Iranian students abroad.
Senior US officials in Washington – clearly wary of a backlash from critics – portrayed the deal as a win, saying it extracted “very important concessions,” including steps that “halts Arak in its tracks” and yields “much more extensive monitoring than we have today.”
The total value of incentives was a “modest and reversible” $6 billion to $7 billion in sanctions relief, which US officials described as a "fraction" of the value of losses to Iran because of the remaining sanctions, which are to be "vigorously" enforced.
In this first-step accord, the core US and EU sanctions would not be touched on oil and banking. Oil sanctions alone during the same six months will cost $30 billion.
Briefing Iranian journalists after the Geneva signing, Zarif emphasized that Iran had not given up any of Iran’s nuclear rights, and in fact preserved all of them – including enrichment.
Zarif said Iran hoped to "restore lost confidence" with the deal, and end this "unnecessary and rather sad chapter."
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