Report

Iran, World Powers Strike Tentative Nuclear Accord

The landmark agreement includes steep concessions on both sides and would dismantle Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb anytime soon.

Medias wait for a statement after Iran nuclear program talks on April 2, 2015 at The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. European powers and Iran's foreign minister said Thursday that marathon talks had reached a deal on curtailing Iran's nuclear programme.   AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Medias wait for a statement after Iran nuclear program talks on April 2, 2015 at The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. European powers and Iran's foreign minister said Thursday that marathon talks had reached a deal on curtailing Iran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran and world powers reached the outlines of a critical interim deal on Thursday that aims to contain Tehran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The agreement ends an exhausting stretch of overnight negotiations and marks the strongest signal yet that the United States and the Islamic Republic are prepared to set aside decades of distrust and embrace diplomacy.

The broad outlines of the deal, announced in a joint statement in Switzerland by the European Union’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, included steep concessions on both sides.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said the accord, if followed, would “cut off every pathway” that Iran could take to develop a nuclear bomb.

Zarif struck a tentatively optimistic tone on the negotiations that will follow toward a June 30 deadline for a final deal. But he said “serious differences” between Tehran and Washington remain. “I hope that at the end of this process, we will all show that through dialogue and engagement with dignity, we can in fact resolve problems, open new horizons, and move forward,” he told reporters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the accord was reached.

Under the agreement, Iran will either dilute or ship abroad its stockpile of enriched uranium, which is a necessary ingredient for a nuclear weapon. An underground bunker at Fordow, Iran, will no longer produce fissile material and will be converted to a physics and technology center for research. A reactor at Arak would be rebuilt with international assistance in order to render it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. And only the hardened facility at Natanz would be allowed to enrich uranium for a period of 10 to 15 years — and only then under heavy scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In exchange, the European Union and the United States agreed to end most of their respective nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions against Iran, but only after the IAEA confirms that Iran has fulfilled key commitments on its nuclear program. In another significant concession to Iran, the world powers pledged to adopt a new resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. The new resolution would also terminate a raft of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006 and impose certain restrictions on Iran’s ability to acquire some sensitive nuclear technologies for an undisclosed period of time. The U.S. contends that Iran would have to address a number of international concerns over the nature of Iran’s program, including the disclosure of information on suspected research in the past on nuclear weapons, before receiving sanctions relief. But the joint statement endorsed by Iran contained no such commitment.

However, U.S. sanctions on Iran for its promotion of terrorism, abuses of human rights, and development of ballistic missiles will remain in place, according to the White House.

Obama said Iran agreed to “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.”

“So this deal is not based on trust,” Obama said. “It’s based on unprecedented verification.”

The pact is expected to face intense criticism in the coming months from Republicans who control the U.S. Congress. Key Mideast allies also likely will be skeptical in the face of longtime fears that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact even as it gains greater freedom and the political and economic ability to project its power in the volatile region.

Following the announcement, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said the “smiles in Lausanne are detached from grim reality in which Iran refuses to make any concessions on the nuclear issue.” Obama was set to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later Thursday, April 2, to brief him on the details of the agreement.

Saudi Arabia has signaled that it may be forced to launch its own nuclear program as a hedge against Iran’s nuclear prowess. But on Thursday, shortly before the accord was unveiled, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, offered cautious support for the negotiations. He declined, however, to pass judgment before absorbing the details of the deal.

“Everyone wants a serious agreement,” Jubeir told reporters in Washington. Meanwhile, in a phone call to Saudi King Salman, Obama made clear that the agreement does not negate U.S. concerns about Iran’s destabilizing actions in the Mideast — a nod to the kingdom’s ongoing military campaign against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, who are backed by Tehran.

The draft agreement leaves unanswered some key questions about the duration of nuclear restrictions on Iran and the extent of Tehran’s ability to engage in research and development of new technology that could enrich uranium at a far more efficient rate than is currently possible. A U.S. fact sheet outlining specific provisions of the deal, many of which are still under negotiation, claimed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities would be phased out over 10 to 25 years.

Iran must also provide international inspectors with insight into its past nuclear activities, which have raised worldwide suspicions. But there is no explicit requirement that it meet IAEA demands to reveal information about its alleged efforts to design a nuclear detonator or to develop a nuclear warhead for long-range missiles. Iran has long denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons, and the IAEA has accused Tehran of refusing to come clean.

The pact, however, would grant Iran greater scope to engage in research activities with foreign scientists. Zarif said none of the provisions in Thursday’s interim accord will be implemented before a comprehensive deal is reached.

The Obama administration’s efforts to secure a nuclear deal has been hailed by supporters as a critical milestone that could re-alter the Middle East, providing new opportunities for the United States and Iran to work together on crises in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against the Islamic State. Also known as Daesh, the extremist Sunni terrorist group is viewed by both Washington and Tehran as a threat to their interests in the region and beyond.

A diplomatic breakthrough could constitute a “new parameter in the Middle East,” opening the door to increased U.S.-Iranian cooperation, said Thomas Pickering, a veteran U.S. diplomat who has worked behind the scenes for years to improve U.S.-Iran relations.

Thursday’s preliminary pact comes about 18 months after the United States began secret talks with Iran, facilitated by the Omani sultanate. Those talks jump-started stagnant negotiations between Iran and other world powers — Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany, and the European Union — and led to a historic September 2013 telephone call between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

But the rivalry between the Islamic Republic and the United States — which has long been referred to by Iranian leaders as the “Great Satan” — is likely to endure, ensuring that any shift in the balance of power in the region is “not so large, in fact, that it should shake the fillings out of the teeth of our Saudi friends,” Pickering told reporters Wednesday at a news teleconference hosted by the Atlantic Council.

In the months leading up to the June 30 deadline, the tentative deal must also pass muster before Congress. Already, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has scheduled an April 14 committee vote on legislation that could force the White House to win congressional approval for a nuclear deal before it is finalized. The bill could also limit the president’s power to waive congressional sanctions for 60 days, a provision that could potentially spook the Iranians at a critical stage in the negotiations.

“[W]e must remain clear-eyed regarding Iran’s continued resistance to concessions, long history of covert nuclear weapons-related activities, support of terrorism, and its current role in destabilizing the region,” Corker said in a statement after the deal was announced.

Obama has threatened to veto any law that threatens the Iran talks, and Corker will need support from Senate Democrats for his bill to pass. Although a significant number of Democrats have sided with him recently, a host of liberal lawmakers voiced support Thursday for the new pact.

“This deal has the potential to cut off all of Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon in a verifiable way,” said Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He said opponents should “not attempt to derail a final comprehensive deal.”

Ilan Goldenberg, a former Defense Department expert on Iran, said the Obama administration must persuade fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill that the tentative agreements is “serious and credible enough to hold off congressional action.” Goldenberg also said the partisan nature of the debate on Iran may well play into the Obama administration’s hands.

“If you ask members of Congress, ‘Do you trust Iran?’ — the answer is no,” Goldenberg said. “But if you ask, ‘Do you want to support President Obama or the Republicans?’ — the answer is President Obama.”

If the talks break down before June 30, it’s likely that Iran will reverse a number of steps it took last year to limit its nuclear activities, Pickering said. That could include: dropping a moratorium on the production of its most purified form of uranium, restoring a stockpile of low-enriched uranium, flicking the switch on some non-operating centrifuges, and eliminating other constraints — including a commitment to stall construction on a heavy-water reactor that Washington fears could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Richard Nephew, a former State Department expert on Iran sanctions who participated in the nuclear talks, said another U.S. goal is to ensure timely access to possible undeclared, covert nuclear facilities.

“It’s clearly understood that any Iranian breakout scenario at a declared facility is the least likely scenario,” Nephew said. “The idea that they would use a well-known, well-inspected site like Natanz to break out is almost farcical. They would invite an immediate military response.”

Nephew believes that the marathon talks were severely complicated by mounting congressional opposition to a deal. In March, a group of 47 Republican lawmakers threatened to oppose the deal in a letter addressed to the Iranian leadership.

“What I’m hearing is there is a lot of nervousness on the Iranian side about the sequence of sanctions relief,” Nephew said. “Part of the reason there is difficulty is that there is a deep suspicion on the Iranian side that future commitments on sanctions will be upheld.”

A State Department fact sheet of the agreement is available for viewing here.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Correction, April 2, 2015: The European Union’s chief diplomat is Federica Mogherini. An earlier version of this article misspelled her first name as Frederica.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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