Iran halts most sensitive nuclear work, triggering US, EU sanctions relief

The IAEA confirmed that Iran stopped production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a precursor to negotiations for a final nuclear deal.

Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AP
Unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and Iranian technicians are on hand to cut the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium enrichment at Natanz facility, some 200 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 20. Iran has halted its most sensitive uranium enrichment work as part of a landmark deal struck with world powers, state TV said Monday.

Iran halted its most sensitive nuclear work today, suspending nuclear advancement for the first time in nearly a decade and starting a six-month countdown to the deadline for forging a comprehensive deal with world powers.

United Nations inspectors fanned out across Iran to inspect nuclear facilities, where state TV showed rubber-gloved Iranian scientists stopping production of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity – a few technical steps from bomb-grade – and inspectors tying seals on the equipment.

Shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had taken those steps and begun diluting its 20-percent stockpile, modest sanctions relief by the US and European Union kicked in, in accordance with the deal signed on Nov. 24 in Geneva. 

“This is an important first step, but more work will be needed to fully address the international community’s concerns regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a statement.

The negotiations for a final deal, intended to permanently prevent Iran from ever being able to make a nuclear weapon in exchange for lifting crippling sanctions, start next month.

Iran will get $4.2 billion of its oil revenue frozen in overseas accounts over the course of the next six months. Sanctions on petrochemical and gold and other precious metal deals, airplane parts, and automobiles -- worth another $2 billion to $3 billion, according to White House figures -- will also be lifted. The most damaging core sanctions on financial dealings and oil exports will remain in place, and Iran is expected to lose $30 billion in the course of this deal.

While Iran’s centrist President Hassan Rouhani has described the accord as win-win, and its signing was greeted with jubilation by Iranians hoping it will ease economic pressure and put off the threat of war, it has been criticized as a sell-out by some. Hard-line media presented the deal as an Iranian defeat.

Vatan-e Emrouz, for example, published its masthead today surrounded by the mourning color of black, with the banner headliner “Nuclear holocaust.” It accused Iran’s negotiating team of lying and said Iran got the losing side in the deal, by giving up “more than 60 percent” of its enrichment activity, with little taken in return.

“While we remove the concerns of the US and Israel, Iran’s concerns remain,” the newspaper wrote. It claimed that Iran would be forced to close the “majority” of its nuclear sites, and that the interim deal showed the extent that Iran’s “plans and achievements” would be “destroyed.”

Removing the stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium was the “best news” for Israel, it read.

Similar complaints were raised in Kayhan, whose editor is a representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and who last month told the Monitor that Iran’s nuclear team had been “ripped off” in Geneva.

Kayhan said Mr. Rouhani’s recent characterization of the deal as “surrender” by world powers before Iran’s might was difficult to justify, when – in Kayhan’s view – Iran was giving so much, and got in return things of “little importance.”

Under the deal, Iran can still enrich uranium to 5 percent, a level suitable for power production but not weapons. That compromise – which will almost certainly leave a sizable enrichment capacity in Iran under any final deal – has raised concerns in the US Congress and in Israel.

Although the White House and many Iran experts say the deal may be the only chance for a diplomatic solution with Iran, the Senate is considering passing a bill that would impose new sanctions if Iran does not comply. Although the additional sanctions would only go into effect if Iran flouted the terms of the deal, its leaders have called the bill a violation of the spirit of the Geneva agreement.

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