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Iran nuclear deal a tectonic shift in Middle East

Analysis: Deal keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons and could open door to wider cooperation

Iran and a U.S.-led consortium of the world’s top powers have achieved a historic agreement that should keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons for at least a decade and could lay the basis for broader cooperation on the multiple crises roiling the Middle East.

U.S. officials were quick to underline that other differences with Iran remain — over its support for groups on the State Department’s terrorism list, its human rights abuses and its challenge of Israel’s right to exist. But there was no disguising the sense that the tectonic plates of international relations are shifting in promising if, for many old U.S. regional allies, unsettling ways.

Exhausted diplomats from Iran, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China (the P5+1) as well as the European Union finalized a 159-page joint comprehensive plan of action in the middle of the night in Vienna as the last piece of what negotiators have called a Rubik’s Cube locked into place. This was a disagreement over how long restrictions should be maintained over Iran’s conventional arms trade even as other sanctions imposed because of its nuclear activities are lifted several months from now.

President Barack Obama, addressing Americans at the unusually early hour of 7 a.m., said the deal “meets every single one of the bottom lines we established” to block four pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking to his nation shortly afterward, declared the agreement a “win-win situation for both parties” that preserves Iranian honor and scientific achievements while ending crippling economic sanctions.

What follows is a complicated process of implementation that will certainly be challenged by opponents in several countries but that could be viewed as an achievement as historic as the U.S. opening to China and U.S.-Soviet détente in the 1970s.

Obama alluded to an earlier era of arms talks when he quoted President John F. Kennedy, saying, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

The essence of the agreement has been known since April 2, when negotiators accepted parameters for a final accord. Their arduous task since then has been to flesh out those parameters, expanding a one-page Iran–European Union statement into a 30,000-word tome that includes five technical annexes.

The heart of the trade-off is an Iranian promise to substantially restrict its nuclear program for more than a decade in return for relief from European and United Nations sanctions and a waiver of U.S. secondary sanctions that impede other countries from doing business with Iran.

Among the surprises is relief of U.S. sanctions on selling commercial airplanes to Iran — a provision that should delight both U.S. companies such as Boeing and beleaguered Iranians who risk their lives by flying on antiquated jets.

According to U.S. officials, the deal will restrict four potential paths to nuclear weapons:

First, it will reduce by two-thirds the number of centrifuges Iran currently has installed — from 19,000 to 6,000 — of which only 5,060 will be allowed to enrich uranium for the next decade at a facility at Natanz that is vulnerable to military attack.

Of the remaining centrifuges, a few hundred will be allowed to operate at an underground plant at Fordow but will not be allowed to enrich uranium. Excess centrifuges will be dismantled and stored under constant electronic surveillance.

Second, Iran will cap enrichment at Natanz at 3.67 percent of the isotope U-235 (far below weapons grade) for 15 years and reduce its stockpile of 10,000 to 12,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent, to 300 kilograms — a quarter of what would be required for a single nuclear weapon if it were further refined to weapons grade.

Third, a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak will be modified so that it will produce only a tiny amount of plutonium, another potential fuel for weapons. Iran will not build a facility to reprocess the spent fuel, which will be exported.

These steps are intended to extend the amount of time it would take Iran to enrich sufficient material for a nuclear weapon from three months at present to 12 to 14 months for the next decade. Other restrictions on research and development of more advanced centrifuges are meant to keep Iran from rapidly ramping up uranium enrichment capacity from 2026 to 2030.

The fourth pathway to a bomb — the so-called sneakout — is addressed by intensified monitoring and verification, including the resolution of questions about past military dimensions of the Iranian program. According to an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, Iran will allow the agency to visit sites where military-related nuclear activity is believed to have taken place, including Parchin, a military base that Iran has paved over three times to elude detection of suspected prior weapons research.

Iran will implement the additional protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and provide access to inspectors “where necessary and when necessary,” in the words of Obama, if Iran is suspected of illicit activity. A joint commission will be set up to supervise implementation and resolve the inevitable disputes.

Under a new U.N. Security Council resolution that will replace seven prior ones, Iran will get relief of sanctions on conventional arms trade after five years and on ballistic missiles after eight years — less time than critics would like but not the immediate relief Iran (and its arms suppliers China and Russia) had sought.

Most important for ordinary Iranians, sanctions on banks, oil trade and ordinary commerce are to be lifted. Iran will get back more than $100 billion in oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign banks.

It is this windfall of cash that has unnerved many opponents who question whether Iran will put the money to good domestic use or give it to groups such as Hezbollah. Even before the text of the deal was published, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared it “a historic mistake for the world.”

His government can be expected to lobby the U.S. Congress hard to reject the agreement. Since negotiators failed to meet a July 10 deadline, Congress will now have 60 days to review the deal — twice the time it would have had if negotiators had reached an agreement last week. But much of that time will be taken up by an August recess.

Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Monday that a vote would not be held until after Congress returns from recess Sept. 8. On Tuesday he tweeted, “I begin from a place of deep skepticism that the deal actually meets the goal of preventing #Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Obama threatened to veto any resolution of disapproval by Congress, and it is unlikely that opponents could muster the votes to override a veto.

The negotiations, the culmination of a process that began in 2003 when Iran was discovered to be building Natanz and Arak, had many phases and did not really begin to make progress until after Rouhani took office in 2013. The talks were tortuous, not just because of the technical complexities of the issues involved but also because so much is riding on the deal beyond the nuclear issue. Even though Iran and the U.S. insisted that they were not seeking a “grand bargain,” the precedent set by the talks suggests that it will now be easier for them to discuss other crises roiling the Middle East.

Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and a Middle East specialist, told a Washington audience on Monday that an Iran deal would make it “marginally more politically feasible to say, ‘Yes, we want Iran at the table’” at any future negotiations over the future of Syria.

The U.S. may be able to deal with Tehran directly on other issues, including Afghanistan, the civil war in Iraq and broader security in the Persian Gulf.

Prospects for a further thaw in relations between what President George W. Bush called a member of an “axis of evil” and a country that Iran has labeled the “Great Satan” are tantalizing if still uncertain.

John Limbert, a veteran former U.S. diplomat and Iran specialist who spent 444 days as a hostage in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, told Al Jazeera, “There are still many problems, and the Islamic Republic hasn’t changed its spots. The many grievances on both sides will remain, but we have seen that there is another and more productive way to manage a relationship with a government we neither like nor trust.”

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