Iran nuclear deal: It's the hurdles, not the pact, that matter

The agreement reached Sunday between Iran and world powers merely formalizes the November Geneva accord. But it's notable that they defied fierce US congressional opposition. 

Majid Asgaripour, Mehr News Agency/AP/File
In this 2010 file photo, the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is seen just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran.

Testing the assumptions behind the headlines

Nuclear negotiators from Iran and six world powers on Sunday cleared a second hurdle on the path to reaching a permanent nuclear accord, despite objections by hardliners on all sides.

But the agreement made yesterday is no big deal: It simply codifies the deal reached in Geneva on Nov. 24 – the first hurdle – by naming Jan. 20 as the start of the six-month window to implement the accord. 

What is a big deal is that the timeline agreed to yesterday was achieved in the face of strong opposition in the US, Israel, and Iran. 

The deal requires Iran to cap its uranium enrichment and to convert its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is a few technical steps from bomb-grade. In exchange, it will receive $4.2 billion in cash from its own oil sales that have been frozen by sanctions in foreign banks, with a first tranche of $550 million unfrozen in the first days of February.

The purpose is to “stop the clock” on Iran's nuclear program for six months so that a final deal can be hammered out without Iran simultaneously making nuclear advances. The final deal would prevent Iran from being able to make a nuclear bomb without being detected – an aim that Iran says it rejects.

Iran has repeatedly denied any intent to acquire nuclear weapons. Iranian and P5+1 officials have emphasized any steps they take are reversible. Yet as many as 59 US senators have signed on to new legislation that would further restricting Iranian oil exports if the Geneva pact is violated. That sparked a row with the White House, which argues that Iran is already at the negotiating table – and that more sanctions could derail the process and lead to far more costly alternatives.

President Barack Obama stated yesterday that he would veto any new sanctions, which “will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully.” 

Iran sees any new sanctions vote in Congress as a violation of the Geneva accord and diplomats say the US measure would “kill” the talks. Some Iranian lawmakers vowed that they would respond to any congressional action with their own law requiring Iran to boost enrichment levels to 60 percent, a step closer to the weapons grade of 90 percent, and far higher than Iran has enriched to date.

Last week, in a strongly worded speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted American policies but said Iran would “negotiate with this Satan [the US] in order to ward off its evil and resolve the issue.” 

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