International

How Iran and world powers finally got to yes on a nuclear deal

Analysis: Iran accepted substantial curbs and tighter scrutiny on nuclear work, while winning modest sanctions relief

Left to right: Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius shake hands after a statement on the Iran agreement on Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Bargaining into the early hours of Sunday morning in Geneva, the representatives of the world’s major powers and Iran reached a milestone on what remains a long road to resolving the decade-old nuclear crisis, and potentially also marking a turning point in three decades of hostility between Tehran and Washington.

Under the deal hammered out between Iran and the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia, Tehran agreed to what President Barack Obama called “substantial limitations” on its nuclear program in return for “modest relief” of sanctions that have harshly impacted the Iranian economy. The agreement covers a six-month period, during which the parties hope to establish momentum for a more far-reaching deal.

While skeptics on all sides are expected to try and pick apart the agreement, few can doubt its historical significance. Had the parties failed again this weekend – only two weeks after Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts last rushed to Geneva but came up short – it would have been extremely difficult to maintain the momentum of negotiations in the face of mounting pressure from more hawkish voices on all sides. President Obama's efforts to restrain Congress from an escalation of U.S. sanctions in order to give diplomacy a chance would have been dealt a severe blow. While some in Congress will almost certainly still try to pass further sanctions, the deal reached in Geneva will have helped the White House make its case.

Indeed, Obama, speaking from the Oval Office late Saturday in Washington, said “now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions” and the agreement promises no new nuclear-related sanctions for six months if Iran abides by its commitments.

The White House, in a fact sheet emailed to reporters, outlined its take on key elements of the deal, which appear to have accomplished major U.S. and international objectives. As anticipated, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent of the isotope U-235 and to “neutralize” its stockpile of near-20 percent uranium by blending it down or converting it into a form “not suitable for further enrichment.”

Per the Obama administration, Iran has also agreed:

*  Not to install new centrifuges and to leave “inoperable” half the installed centrifuges at its main enrichment facility at Natanz, and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at an underground plant called Fordow which was of particular proliferation concern;

* Not to build more centrifuges apart from those needed to replace damaged machines “so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges";

* Not to build any new plants to enrich uranium;

* Not to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. While Iran will continue enriching to 3.5 percent – allowing Iranian officials to accurately claim that they are not “suspending” enrichment as they did for two years a decade ago -- Iran promised to convert the newly enriched uranium to a powder form that cannot be easily enriched to a higher level.

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Iran also agreed to a series of measures to halt progress on a heavy water reactor at Arak that if completed, could produce plutonium, another potential bomb materiel. Iran promised that the reactor would not go into operation during the six month period – an easy pledge since the reactor was not due to be commissioned until the end of next year anyway. Tehran also promised to stop making fuel for the reactor.  According to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has only manufactured 10 fuel assemblies for Arak and would need 130 more to start up the reactor. Iran also promised not to install new reactor components at Arak, and not to build a reprocessing facility to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel.

Among the most important Iranian pledges were to increase access for the IAEA to Natanz and Fordow – sites that are currently inspected about once a week. Now, inspectors will be able to go there daily. Iran also said it would let the IAEA see facilities where Iran produces components for centrifuges, and assembles and stores them. And in a key concession, Iran agreed to set up a joint commission with the IAEA to deal with allegations of past weapons research, including access to Parchin, a controversial military site.

In return, Iran will get about $7 billion in sanctions relief – a small fraction of the billions it has lost because of its defiance of the UN Security Council and refusal in the past to curb its nuclear program.

Even before the details of the agreement were announced, critics of Obama's diplomatic strategy were disparaging it. Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-SC), tweeted that “unless the agreement requires dismantling of the Iranian centrifuges, we really haven't gained anything.”

However, the Obama administration can argue convincingly that Iran will not be able to break out and get anywhere close to building a nuclear weapon during the next six months, while a comprehensive agreement is pursued.

The nuclear accord is Obama's first major foreign policy achievement, and may bring some welcome relief at a moment when the troubles of his signature domestic initiative, the Affordable Care Act, are sapping his popularity. The nuclear deal -- if implemented -- also opens the prospect of Iranian cooperation on even more intractable regional issues, including the civil war in Syria and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his hard-working Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the agreement may be even more timely. Rouhani promised  Iran’s sanctions-burdened people that their lives would begin to improve by the end of his first 100 days in office. Rouhani calculates his 100th day as Nov. 26 – from when his cabinet was seated – so he has met his deadline with only two days to spare.

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