National Security

Iran’s clerics embrace nuclear deal, but details could prove troublesome

In this photo released by the Iranian Presidency Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside the port city of Bushehr, southern Iran, Jan. 13, 2015. Rouhani on April 3, 2015 pledged that his nation will abide by its commitments in the nuclear agreement reached the previous day in Switzerland.
In this photo released by the Iranian Presidency Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside the port city of Bushehr, southern Iran, Jan. 13, 2015. Rouhani on April 3, 2015 pledged that his nation will abide by its commitments in the nuclear agreement reached the previous day in Switzerland. AP/Iranian Presidency Office

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iran’s powerful religious establishment on Friday embraced the outlines of an accord with world powers aimed at preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb in a speech in which he looked forward to improving relations with the world.

“If the other side honors its promises, we will honor our promises,” he said in answer to Western claims that Iran cannot be trusted. He called the framework a “first step” toward “constructive interaction” with the international community, and he indicated that he wanted improved relations with the United States.

“With those countries with which we have a cold relationship we would like a better relationship. And if we have tension or hostility with any countries, we want an end to tension and hostility with those countries,” he said.

Rouhani’s speech, which was streamed live on the Internet by Iran’s English-language news service, Press TV, came as analysts highlighted how the deal could founder over a number of differences, including on when sanctions on Iran will end. Such disputes could hand hardline opponents in both Iran and the United States a potentially powerful weapon to undermine negotiations to reach a final agreement by the end of June.

“Sanctions relief is very vague. That’s one of the big missing pieces,” said Alireza Nader of the RAND Corp., a policy institute, explaining that while Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, contended that sanctions would be lifted by reaching a final deal, the Obama administration has said the sanctions would be lifted in phases, based on Iranian compliance. The sanctions would be reimposed immediately if Iran backtracks.

Nader said he didn’t know whether the differing versions is “because of a disagreement between the two sides or the Iranian government is saying this as a way of satisfying its opponents at home.” In any case, “both sides are really trying to spin this,” he said.

Conservatives in Iran and Republican-led critics in the United States could seize on other issues left unresolved in the framework accord, which was announced in Switzerland on Thursday after 18 months of talks between Iran the so called P5+1 nations – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

One of those is how Iran will satisfy U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency demands that it answer questions about research it’s suspected of conducting into a missile-borne nuclear warhead. Iran denies that it pursued such research but has stonewalled the nuclear watchdog’s investigation.

Rouhani said the framework was tantamount to an admission by the West that its longtime accusations against Iran were unfounded.

“Those who stated that Iran’s enrichment is a threat to the region and the world have admitted today that enrichment in Iran is no threat to anyone,” he said. “I, hereby, declare in a straightforward manner now that enrichment and all nuclear-related technologies are aimed only at Iran’s development and will not be used against any other countries.”

Rouhani said that nuclear-related sanctions – a devastating cocktail of measures imposed on Iran’s oil industry, banks, key corporations and individuals by the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations – would be lifted “on the very first day of the implementation of the deal.”

That language is similar to the official European Union-Iranian announcement read Thursday in Lausanne, Switzerland, which said “the EU will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions and the U.S. will cease the application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions, simultaneously with the IAEA-verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.”

But while Rouhani spoke of “the very first day,” IAEA certification that Iran has followed steps laid out in the agreement is unlikely to come for months after Iran begins implementing the deal. The United States estimates it would take at least six months from the time a deal is signed for Iran to implement major parts of the accord.

Among the deal’s tentative provisions is Iran’s removal from its two enrichment facilities of about two-thirds of its 19,000 centrifuges, the high-speed spinning machines used to enrich uranium.

Iran also would have to get rid of all but 661 pounds of a 22,000-pound stockpile of low-enriched uranium, remove and destroy the core of a reactor that could produce plutonium – which can be used in weapons – and open up its entire uranium production line – from mining to milling – as part of the most intrusive IAEA inspection and monitoring system ever devised.

There’s still a lack of clarity about whether IAEA inspectors can go “wherever they want, when they want,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

“There are a lot of obstacles to a deal,” Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk assessment company, said during a discussion at the Atlantic Council, a policy institute. “There’s no agreement on how sanctions relief is going to work. The Iranians think everything is going to happen up front. The U.S. thinks everything is going to be phased.”

The White House also was cautious about Rouhani’s assertion that the tentative deal was a first step in Iran’s outreach to countries with whom it has had tense relations.

“I understand that the Iranians are in a spot where they need to sell this deal to the population there,” Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said. “For us, this was a deal about Iran’s nuclear program – full stop. That’s what the negotiations were about. That’s what the international community came together, along with the United States, to reach. And for us, that was the parameters of this deal.”

Obama faces heated opposition to the deal in Congress, where Republican leaders have vowed to pass legislation that would require him to seek congressional approval for any final agreement. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote April 14 on a bipartisan bill that would require Obama to submit the text of any nuclear agreement to Congress for a 60-day review before sanctions could be lifted.

Schultz said Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and promised him a “good, long look at the details.”

The delicacy of the deal was underscored by Democrats, many of whom offered only qualified support for the tentative deal.

“The ultimate agreement cannot be based on trust; there is no trust when it comes to Iran,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Several Democrats went further, with Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida saying that he greeted any deal with Iran “with great skepticism, given its deceptive history and ongoing destabilizing and dangerous activities.”

Deutch said he was “deeply concerned” with a number of issues, including the timing of sanctions relief.

The likely 2016 Republican presidential challengers also have sharply criticized the deal, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush saying he could not “stand behind such a flawed agreement.”

The issue also is likely to play a role in the 2016 presidential election. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a likely Democratic candidate, played a role in getting secret talks started with Iran, despite her dismissal of the strategy when she was a 2008 presidential candidate.

Clinton issued a statement supporting Obama for the effort but noting that “the onus is on Iran and the bar must be set high.”

The one key Iranian figure yet to be heard from on the framework is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who supported the negotiations while laying down a series of red lines that included not eliminating any nuclear facilities and maintaining enrichment – demands met by the framework.

But the leaders of Friday prayers at the country’s main mosques praised Rouhani, Zarif and the tentative accord, signaling Khamenei’s approval.

“All these gentlemen, especially the esteemed president and foreign minister, should be congratulated, wished more power . . . and reminded that victories are granted from almighty Allah’s side to pious believers,” Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, the interim Friday prayer leader of Tehran, was quoted as saying by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

Lesley Clark, William Douglas and Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Washington.

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