GENEVA — Iran and six world powers announced early Sunday that they had reached an interim agreement that would for the first time roll back portions of Iran’s nuclear program. In return, some economic sanctions against Iran would be eased.
President Barack Obama hailed the accord, calling it an important first step toward a comprehensive agreement to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
“For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back,” Obama said in a hastily arranged six-minute speech that he delivered from the White House after 10:30 p.m.
Among Iran’s concessions, according to U.S. officials:
-- Iran will halt construction of its nuclear reactor at Arak. The reactor had been of special concern because it would create plutonium, which can be used as fuel for an atomic bomb.
-- Iran has agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium and to destroy part of its stockpile of already enriched uranium. Under the terms of the deal, Iran would not enrich uranium beyond 5 percent and dismantle the equipment that allows enrichment beyond that point. It also agreed not to increase its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium for the next six months and to eliminate its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
-- Iran will not install new, more sophisticated centrifuges – the devices used to turn raw uranium ore into purer forms of uranium that can be used in nuclear reactors and, when pure enough, to build a nuclear weapons.
The deal also would allow U.N. inspectors to visit Iran’s enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz every day, a scenario that would make it very difficult for Iran to cheat.
“These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb.”
In return the West agreed not to impose new sanctions on Iran and will ease sanctions that have in large part crippled the Iranian economy in recent years. Among the steps the West will take is suspension of sanctions that limit Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals, automobiles and petrochemcials. Those moves could provide Iran with an much as $1.5 billion in revenue over the next six month, according to a U.S. fact sheet on the agreement.
The West will also allow the transfer to Iran of about $4.2 billion in revenue from oil sales over the next six months.
The agreement came after a marathon negotiating session and brought a dramatic end to what had been three rounds of talks, the outcome of which was never certain.
The deal will almost certainly be greeted skeptically by some of the United States’ closest regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as members of Congress who’ve voiced concern about the talks. Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for former President George W. Bush – without knowing any details of the deal – immediately accused the Obama administration of selling out its allies.
“The Iran deal and our allies: You can’t spell abandonment without OBAMA,” he said via Twitter.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., took issue with Obama’s assessment of the deal.
“Instead of rolling back Iran’s program,” he said in a statement, “Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability. Yet we are the ones doing the dismantling – relieving Iran of the sanctions pressure built up over years.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also offered caution. “Numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions have called for the full suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities, so it is troubling that this agreement still permits the Iranians to continue enriching,” he said in a statement. “It is critical that distrust but verify be the guiding principle with which we approach this agreement.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani credited his election in June on a platform of ending Iran’s isolation from the West and suggested more diplomatic breakthroughs were possible. “Iranian people’s vote for #moderation & constructive engagement + tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons,” read a post on his official Twitter account.
Obama seemed to offer the same assessment in his six-minute speech. “If Iran seizes this opportunity, the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations,” he said.
But he also pledged that the United States will not agree to anything that would allow Iran to at some point develop a nuclear weapons, though he warned Congress not to impose new sanctions on Iran – something a bipartisan group of lawmakers has urged in recent days. He said new sanctions could derail a bigger agreement, alienate the U.S. from allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled the sanctions to be enforced in the first place.
“As we go forward, the resolve of the United States will remain firm, as will our commitment to our friends and allies – particularly Israel and our Gulf partners, who have good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions,” he said.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control organization, called the deal “historic,” pointing out that it was the first involving the United States and Iran since they severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis.
“Every president since Jimmy Carter has been trying to make a deal with Iran and it looks like President Obama is the first one to succeed,” said Cirincione. “It’s a first step, but it’s a huge step.”
The timing also is helpful to Secretary of State John Kerry, whose image has taken a beating lately with public criticisms that describe him as a "human wrecking ball" and someone so “conspicuously detached from on-the-ground realities” that he’s at risk of being “remembered as a self-deceiving bumbler.” One satirist last week issued a tongue-in-cheek Amber Alert, for "missing U.S. foreign policy."
Kerry’s camp now has fodder to counter recent reports that he’s cut out of White House foreign policy planning, at odds with National Security adviser Susan Rice, delusional about Washington’s ability to solve crises in the Middle East, and prone to slips of the tongue that make headlines across the globe.
Now, Kerry can boast that before his first year in the post was up he’d helped to broker deals to remove Syria’s chemical arsenal and curtail Iran’s nuclear program – moves that promise unprecedented international access to two of the world’s pariah states.
It’s also not clear how vociferous opposition to the deal will be.
Publicly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly denounced any agreement that didn’t require Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program, a position adopted by pro-Israeli lawmakers in the United States and other critics of Obama’s pursuit of a diplomatic resolution.
But a prominent Israeli newspaper reported that Netanyahu’s government quietly had lobbied to have its chief concerns reflected in the interim accord, especially over nuclear weapons research Iran is suspected of pursuing until at least late 2003.
Israeli Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, tapped by Netanyahu too coordinate with world powers on the crisis, relayed Israel’s views in telephone calls as the talks were talking place to two of the P5 Plus 1 foreign ministers, said Haaretz. It did not name the pair.
Steintz asked that the deal ensure that Iran can’t develop any aspect of its nuclear program under the term “scientific research,” which it could use to disguise weapons-related work, the newspaper reported, and he even proposed language to address the issue.
He also asked the P5 Plus 1, the shorthand moniker for the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, to retreat from the demand that Iran halt work on the Arak reactor, and that Iran be compelled to convert all of the near-20 percent enriched uranium it holds – about 440 pounds – into uranium oxide, which would make it harder to use for a weapon, Haazetz said.
An agreement that met those Israeli demands would likely satisfy Netanyahu and weaken any lingering opposition among pro-Israeli lawmakers and other critics, who have accused Obama of betraying Israel.
“The actual Israeli petition was much more pragmatic than the rhetoric,” said Cirincione. “I think some of the domestic (U.S.) opponents of the deal didn’t understand what the real Israeli position was.”
Most of the world was hoping for an agreement because the alternative may have been U.S. or Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities that could trigger a regional war, he said.
“Relief will sweep the international community,” he said. “There have been so many people who have been pulling for this deal for so long that those who oppose it will be a small minority.”
The accord marked a breathtaking warming in Iran’s troubled relationship with the United States and other Western nations that began with a charm offensive by Rouhani during his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September. That visit culminated with a phone conversation with President Barack Obama – the highest level contact between the United States and Iran in more than three decades.
The phone call was quickly followed by a new series of negotiations in Geneva that quickly made progress.
Analysts say the election of Rouhani, who promised sweeping reforms, presented an unparalleled opportunity for the United States to engage directly with Iran.
Passing on such a rare opportunity would’ve been akin to "diplomatic malpractice," said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council research center and Washington correspondent for the Middle East-focused Al-Monitor.com.
Still, agreement was elusive. Optimism that an agreement was near two weeks ago collapsed after France objected to some of its provisions.
Sunday morning’s accord came after hours of “intensive” and “difficult” talks – for the second time in two weeks – as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia struggled to find an agreement that would rein in Iran’s nuclear program while easing some of the tough sanctions that had been imposed in recent years.
The deal is designed to give the sides six months to nail down a final accord that would ensure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon.
A major sticking point had been Iran’s insistence that it be allowed to continue construction of a reactor that could give it a path toward a nuclear weapon through the production of plutonium. The Arak reactor is considerably behind schedule, but France in particular has insisted that work on the facility be halted.
Another issue appeared to be the degree of sanctions relief the United States would be willing to give Iran, whose economy has been devastated by measures imposed for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, which produces fuel for power plants and for nuclear warheads.
Iran also has been pressing for recognition of what it claims to be its right to enrich uranium, a right that the United States doesn’t recognize, especially because Iran kept its program hidden from international inspectors for 18 years. Moreover, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency has evidence that Iran researched a missile-borne nuclear warhead until late 2003.
Kerry met twice during the day with Iran’s Zarif and Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief and the main negotiator for the P5 Plus 1.
Western diplomats, who declined to be identified because of the delicacy of the negotiations, said that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was holding firm to a demand that Iran suspend construction of the Arak reactor during the six-month interim deal.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that maintaining the facility is a red line that cannot be negotiated.
Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay and Kumar reported from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Washington.