U.S. and Iran Reach Historic Nuclear Deal

The agreement, swapping sanctions relief for new limits on Tehran’s nuclear program, came after Washington bowed to Iranian demands to lift a U.N. arms embargo.

By Dan De Luce and Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Iranian soldiers prepare to launch a Hawk surface-to-air missile during military maneuvers at an undisclosed location in Iran on November 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ISNA/AMIN KHOROSHAHI        (Photo credit should read AMIN KHOROSHAHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian soldiers prepare to launch a Hawk surface-to-air missile during military maneuvers at an undisclosed location in Iran on November 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ISNA/AMIN KHOROSHAHI (Photo credit should read AMIN KHOROSHAHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran and six world powers agreed to a historic deal Tuesday that will impose limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for relief from punishing economic sanctions, marking the culmination of more than a decade of diplomacy and confrontation.

After 18 days of exhausting negotiations in Vienna, diplomats announced they had clinched the accord, and President Barack Obama hailed it as a breakthrough that would defuse long-running tensions over Iran’s disputed nuclear project.

“Today, because America negotiated from a position of strength and principle, we stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region,” Obama said in a televised speech from the White House.

The international community, he added, “will be able to verify that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not be able to develop a nuclear weapon” — an assertion immediately questioned by critics of the deal, who said the agreement doesn’t allow for the so-called “anytime, anywhere” inspections needed to fully ensure Iranian compliance.

The accord between the P5+1 –the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany — and Iran included provisions hammered out in the final hours that will lift a U.N. conventional arms embargo on Tehran within five years and restrictions on ballistic missile imports within eight years.

The agreement, the product of 20 months of intense diplomacy, runs to more than 100 pages, including highly-technical language on specific dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work.

Under the terms of the deal, Tehran agreed to remove two-thirds of its centrifuges, reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium to a fraction of what would be needed to make a bomb, halt the use of advanced centrifuges for 10 years, and allow UN inspectors round-the-clock access to nuclear sites.

If  Tehran later chose to dump the agreement, U.S. officials said the deal’s terms would extend Iran’s breakout time to build a nuclear weapon to at least one year, a timeframe Israel and other opponents say is far too optimistic.

Iran also promised not to build a new heavy water reactor for 15 years and will have to modify the core of its heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak, while its spent fuel — a key component of a potential bomb — will be shipped outside of the country.

The terms of the accord will be outlined and endorsed in a new U.N. Security Council resolution, officials said.

And Obama said a raft of financial and oil sanctions would be gradually lifted — providing Tehran with access to between $100 billion and $150 billion in frozen funds — only after Iran demonstrates it is abiding by its commitments under the agreement and would be reimposed if Tehran was caught cheating. He also reiterated that Washington reserved the right to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb.

But Obama said the accord made the prospect of U.S. military action less likely.

“Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East,” he said, adding that “we give nothing up by testing whether or not this problem can be solved peacefully.”

The deal was greeted with relief and jubilation in Iran, where the sanctions had caused the country’s currency to plummet and fueled a spike in inflation.

“Today is the end to acts of tyranny against our nation and the start of cooperation with the world,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist elected two years ago on promises to end the sanctions, said in a televised address.

“This is a reciprocal deal. If they stick to it, we will,” he said.

The months of talks leading up to the accord almost collapsed on several occasions over an array of sharp divides over Iran’s nuclear program. Near the finish line, though, it was an unresolved dispute over the eight-year-old U.N. embargo on conventional weaponry that nearly derailed the deal.

Iran — backed by Russia and China — pressed for an immediate end to the embargo, which includes sharp limits on Tehran’s ability to build ballistic missiles.

The issue proved so difficult that the two sides left it out of the preliminary agreement reached by the United States, Iran, and other key powers in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April.

Obama said Tuesday the U.N. arms embargo would be lifted in five years under the deal, and that international restrictions on ballistic missiles would be eased in eight years.

Iran argued that there was no rationale for the ban if it signed an accord that prevented the country from developing a nuclear arsenal.

Washington had long argued that lifting the embargo should be off the table, but it eventually opted to discuss easing the ban at some point in the future. That’s because U.S. negotiators believe that the arms embargo, which bars Iran from importing a broad range of military hardware, including warplanes and battle tanks, has done little to impede Iran’s ability to arm and equip its proxies throughout the region, including in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

But the arms embargo carries great symbolic weight among Iran’s critics in Washington, Israel, and the Persian Gulf Arab states, where it is viewed as a critical component of a broader strategy aimed at limiting Iran’s ability to spread its influence throughout the region by arming proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

Iran and Russia have argued that the embargo on Iranian conventional weapons and ballistic missiles should be lifted as soon as Iran takes steps to address the world’s concerns about its nuclear program.

The future of the arms embargo is one of several points in the agreement that will come under intense scrutiny from skeptics of the negotiations in Washington and the Middle East.

The agreement’s provisions on inspections will be at the center of the debate between advocates and opponents of the deal. The accord allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to gain access to any site in Iran to check that the country is abiding by the deal, including military facilities. But critics will point to a dispute settlement process outlined in the accord that could permit Iran to put off requested inspections for 24 days — possibly enough time to erase proof of illicit nuclear work.

U.S. officials argue the deal will prevent a possible war with Iran by curtailing its nuclear project while allowing unprecedented access for international inspectors.

But Israel, Arab states and some members of Congress fear the accord will allow Iran to move closer to securing nuclear weapons while allowing them to get their hands on oil revenue and other cash to empower its proxies from Damascus to Sanaa.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had made an unusual trip to Capitol Hill earlier this year to publicly lobby against an agreement, called it “a historic mistake” and said Israel had committed “to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and this commitment still stands.” One of Netanyahu’s chief political rivals, Tzipi Livni of the left-leaning Zionist Union Party, also condemned the deal in unusually strong language.

“Iran is getting legitimacy despite being a state involved in terrorism in the region,” she said. “The agreement is terrible not only because of what it includes but also what it does not.”

Skeptical U.S. lawmakers — many deeply sympathetic to the Israel fears — will have 60 days to review the accord. If they vote against it, Obama said Tuesday that he would veto their move. Republicans likely would face difficulty rallying enough Democrats to override the president’s veto.

Apart from the provisions of the accord, an underlying question hanging over the talks has been whether a deal could transform Iran’s role in the world and open the way to a new era in Tehran’s relations with the United States and Western states.

For Rouhani, Iran’s pragmatic president, the deal will provide concrete proof to his hardline rivals back home that a less strident approach to the world pays dividends, possibly strengthening the position of the reformists who support him.

But skeptics say it is unrealistic to expect the nuclear accord to trigger a dramatic change in Iran’s behavior or alter its long-running hostility to the United States and its allies in the Middle East.

Iran and the United States have not had formal diplomatic relations since the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days in the wake of the revolution that overthrew the country’s monarchy.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are unlikely to support any deal that the United States strikes with Iran in the coming days. However, even a number of progressive lawmakers have expressed concerns about lifting the arms embargo.

“I have been a supporter of these negotiations … but if all of a sudden a set of sanctions that had nothing to do with the nuclear program start going away, then even some of the supporters of this deal at the outset may get cold feet,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on MSNBC on Sunday.

The United States and its European partners have long suspected that ballistic missiles constitute an integral part of Iran’s ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon. The U.N. Security Council first imposed restrictions on Iran’s trade in ballistic missiles in December 2006.

Over the past few weeks, the negotiators struggled to fill gaps over a range of issues, from the pace of sanctions relief to research and development related to Iran’s advanced centrifuges to the rights of U.N. inspectors to gain access to Iranian military sites. The United States and its partners have also been pressing Iran to provide a fuller account of what they believe is Iran’s past military efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies that it has ever sought to build a nuclear weapon, maintaining that it only seeks to develop the capacity to use nuclear power for civilian uses.

While the conventional arms embargo would eventually be lifted along with oil and financial sanctions, U.S. officials said sanctions imposed on Iran over its support of terrorism and human rights abuses would remain in place.

FP staff writer John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo: Amin Khoroshahi/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch