Five years after President Barack Obama came into office pledging to reach out to Iran, the combination of painstaking back-channel talks and formal negotiations is yielding its first concrete results: Monday saw the Islamic Republic begin implementation of the interim deal signed Nov. 24 in Geneva, capping its uranium enrichment and stockpiles of fissile material that could be used to quickly build a bomb.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors confirmed on Monday that Iran has begun fulfilling its agreement with the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany) by disconnecting centrifuge cascades that have, for the past three years been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent U-235 — technically far closer to weapons-grade than the 3.5 percent enriched uranium used to fuel electricity-producing reactors. Iran has also begun diluting its existing stockpile of 20-percent uranium and is providing unprecedented access to IAEA inspectors to verify compliance with these and other curbs on the Iranian nuclear program.
The quid pro quo for Iran's cooperation is modest sanctions reduction by Western powers - on Monday, both the EU and the U.S. said it would start easing some restrictions on Tehran . While many of Iran's concessions are front-loaded (although some will come in increments), sanctions relief will take effect more slowly. Over the next six months, about 4 percent of the $100 billion in Iranian oil revenues currently stuck in foreign banks will be doled out to Tehran in monthly installments, beginning with $550 million on Feb. 1. As Gary Samore, a former senior U.S. nonproliferation official who is now at Harvard's Belfer Center, wrote recently, "In essence, the P5+1 is paying Iran to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium on the basis of performance. Either side can halt the process at any time without having expended all of its chips if the other side doesn't deliver."
While critics of the interim agreement decry the deal's reversibility, advocates insist it was essential to break the stalemate. Neither side trusts the other sufficiently, at this stage, to make more lasting concessions. The interim agreement also bars Iran from adding to the number of centrifuges it has producing low-enriched uranium and requires suspension of work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak, a by-product of which — once operational — would be plutonium, another potential bomb material.
Besides getting $4.2 billion in cash, Iran will be able to sell petrochemicals, continue current reduced oil exports to six countries, buy spare parts for civilian airliners and purchase gold and other precious metals — measures worth another $3 billion by U.S. estimates. The P5+1 countries have also promised to facilitate establishment of a channel for humanitarian transactions, such as importing medicine and supporting Iranian students abroad, although the exact mechanism to do this has not been made public. While the Geneva breakthrough has been sufficient to tempt European and other foreign trade delegations to visit Iran, it is doubtful that any major new contracts will be signed as long as sanctions remain in effect on most Iranian banks, including the central bank. Those sanctions will not be lifted unless there is a comprehensive agreement and even then will require action by the U.S. Congress.
The agreement that takes effect Monday is the ice breaker. The key questions that follow, however, are first, whether the interim deal survives, and second, whether it leads to a comprehensive accord. Many observers, among them Samore, believe that the six-month pact will have to be renewed at least once and point to the continuing gulf between Iran's concept of an endgame, which envisions keeping existing nuclear facilities, and the U.S.'s, which would shutter Arak and an underground enrichment plant at Fordow. While negotiations proceed, hard-liners on all sides will be looking for opportunities to sabotage talks and, with them, any prospect of U.S.-Iran rapprochement.
So far, Obama appears to have staved off a push by the Senate to pass new sanctions that, even with a delayed trigger, would have violated the spirit if not the letter of the Geneva accords and imposed a series of extraneous conditions, including a requirement that Iran not test medium-range ballistic missiles. The White House warned senators that backing a new sanctions resolution that might prompt Iran to abandon the agreement at this delicate stage would be taking the U.S. on a path to war.
On the Iranian side, President Hassan Rouhani has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to blunt conservatives in parliament who drafted legislation requiring Iran to enrich uranium to 60 percent U-235 after the Senate bill was introduced. Such posturing is not surprising. Rouhani has been spinning the interim deal as "surrender" by the international community in part to placate his right flank.