Iran begins enrichment cap as nuclear deal with world powers takes effect

Start of interim nuclear agreement gives negotiators six-month opening and a rare moment of optimism in troubled region

A Russian worker at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in 2010.
Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency/Reuters

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.

See more Al Jazeera America special coverage on U.S.-Iran diplomacy

Opposition to the deal on Capitol Hill may be reinforced by the fear that, in an election year, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — which takes a hawkish line on Iran — might punish candidates it deems soft on Tehran's nuclear program. U.S. skeptics fear that it will be difficult to quickly ramp up sanctions on Iran if the interim deal falls apart or does not lead to a more substantive agreement. However, multinational sanctions against Iran may have already reached their peak. All sanctions unravel over time — remember Iraq in the 1990s — and without the Holocaust-denying former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the world stage, Iran is no longer an easy target for punishment. It's hard to imagine Ahmadinejad hobnobbing at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Rouhani and his urbane foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will be attending at the end of this month. 

And it's important to note that the most painful Iranian sanctions — those that target its banking and energy sectors — are based on the U.S.'s using economic penalties to force compliance from the countries that do business with Iran. It's far from clear that if Congress passed new sanctions while Iran was deemed to be reasonably compliant with the Geneva deal that the likes of China, Russia, India and Turkey would simply do Washington's bidding.

Those pushing hardest in Washington against the Iran nuclear deal appear to believe that Tehran can be forced to end all uranium enrichment — a dangerous illusion, according to many on both sides of the U.S.-Iran divide who have pressed for a diplomatic solution.

Iranian officials, including Rouhani, who engineered a suspension of enrichment from 2003 to 2005 when he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, have stated repeatedly that Iran's right to the full nuclear fuel cycle is nonnegotiable. The interim Geneva agreement specifies that the endgame will include "a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program." The next round of talks, due in February, will begin trying to reach that mutual definition.

With a nuclear program that dates to the 1950s, Iran has already achieved the technical capacity to build nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. The current U.S. intelligence assessment holds that Iran's leadership has not yet made a political decision to build the bomb and further concludes that Tehran's decision-making in this regard will be shaped by rational cost-benefit analysis. It's that premise that appears to have guided the Obama administration's approach to Iran, mustering unprecedented international support for sanctions and diplomacy. But maintaining that unity also requires negotiating from a position that reflects an international consensus on what should be demanded of Iran. 

Advocates and skeptics are equally well aware that success in moving toward resolving the nuclear standoff could open the way to a wider U.S.-Iranian detente, with important regional consequences — not all of which are welcomed by such longstanding U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Middle East's only current nuclear-armed state. But that's a hypothetical prospect at this stage.  For now, the deal that takes effect Monday offers — for as long as it remains in effect — significantly greater verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear work and safeguards against its weaponizing nuclear material. And that, presumably, makes the Middle East a little safer than it was before the agreement took effect. 

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