Iran, world powers reach six-month nuclear agreement

Switzerland’s foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, left, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting prior to talks in Geneva on Saturday. (Associated Press)
Switzerland’s foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, left, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting prior to talks in Geneva on Saturday. (Associated Press)

GENEVA – Iran and six world powers announced early today that they had reached an interim, six-month 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.

“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 as much as $1.5 billion in revenue over the next six months, according to a U.S. fact sheet on the agreement.

The West also will allow the transfer to Iran of about $4.2 billion in revenue from oil sales over the next six months.

The deal marks a milestone between the United States and Iran, which broke diplomatic ties 34 years ago when Iran’s Islamic revolution climaxed in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Since then, relations between the two countries have been frigid to hostile until the recent outreach between the presidents of the two nations.

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.

Apart from the public negotiations, the Associated Press reported that the United States and Iran secretly engaged in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks over the past year, in a high-stakes diplomatic gamble by the Obama administration that paved the way for the deal.

Obama personally authorized the talks as part of his effort – promised in his first inaugural address – to reach out to Iran, according to the AP.

The secret talks were held in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of people in the know, the AP learned. Since March, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, have met at least five times with Iranian officials.

The last four clandestine meetings, held since Iran’s reform-minded President Hasan Rouhani was inaugurated in August, produced much of the agreement later formally hammered out in negotiations in Geneva, said three senior administration officials. All spoke only on condition of anonymity, the AP said.

The discussions were kept hidden even from America’s closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago, according to the AP. That may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.

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.

Israel harshly criticized the agreement today, accusing the international community of “self-delusion” and saying the deal would not halt Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Israel’s Cabinet minister for intelligence issues, Yuval Steinitz, compared it to a failed 2007 international deal with North Korea and said it “is more likely to bring Iran closer to having a bomb.”

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.

In a Twitter statement, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas linked the agreement to the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care,” Cornyn said.

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 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.

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,” Cirincione said. “It’s a first step, but it’s a huge step.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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