Geneva, Nov. 24: The United States and five other world powers announced a landmark accord this morning that would temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear programme and lay the foundation for a more sweeping agreement.
It was the first time in nearly a decade, American officials said, that an international agreement had been reached to halt much of Iran’s nuclear programme and roll some elements of it back.
The aim of the accord, which is to last six months, is to give international negotiators time to pursue a more comprehensive pact that would ratchet back much of Iran’s nuclear programme and ensure that it could be used only for peaceful purposes.
Shortly after the agreement was signed at 3am in the Palace of Nations in Geneva, President Barack Obama hailed it as the most “significant and tangible” progress of a diplomatic campaign that began when he took office.
“Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path to wards a world that is more secure,” he said, “a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
In Geneva, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he hoped the agreement would lead to a “restoration” of trust between Iran and the US. Smiling and avuncular, he reiterated Iran’s longstanding assertion that its nuclear programme was peaceful.
Secretary of state John Kerry, who flew to Geneva early yesterday for the second time in two weeks in an effort to complete the deal, said it would “require Iran to prove the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme.”
Iran, which has long resisted international monitoring efforts and built clandestine nuclear facilities, agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 per cent, a level that would be sufficient for energy production but that would require further enrichment for bomb-making. To make good on that pledge, Iran will dismantle links between networks of centrifuges.
Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent, a short hop from weapons-grade fuel, would be diluted or converted into oxide so that it could not be readily used for military purposes. Iran agreed that it would not install any new centrifuges, start up any that are not already operating or build new enrichment facilities.
The agreement does not require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 per cent, or to dismantle any of its existing centrifuges.
The accord was a disappointment for Israel, which had urged the US to pursue a stronger agreement that would lead to a complete end to Iran’s enrichment programme.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the deal as it left the nuclear fuel-producing infrastructure of its arch-foe intact. “What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake,” he said.
In return for the initial agreement with Iran, the US agreed to provide $6 billion to $7 billion in sanctions relief. Of this, roughly $4.2 billion would be oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign banks.
This limited sanctions relief can be accomplished by executive order, allowing the Obama administration to make the deal without having to appeal to Congress, where there is strong criticism of any agreement that does not fully dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme.
The fact that the accord would only pause the Iranian programme was seized on by critics who said it would reward Iran for institutionalising the status quo.
Obama addressed those concerns, insisting that the easing of sanctions could be reversed if Iran failed to reach a final agreement or reneged on the terms of this one.
A second and even more contentious debate centred on whether an initial deal would, as the Obama administration said, serve as a “first step” to wards a comprehensive solution of the nuclear issue, one that would leave Iran with a peaceful nuclear programme that could not easily be used for military purposes.
Some experts, including a former official who has worked on the Iranian issue for the White House, said it was unlikely that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would ever close the door on the option to develop nuclear weapons. Instead, they said, any initial six-month agreement is more likely to be followed by a series of partial agreements that constrain Iran’s nuclear activities but do not definitively solve the nuclear issues.
India’s oil hope
For India, any deal that promises a thaw in relations between Iran and the West is good, adds our special correspondent in Delhi. Till 2012, Iran was India’s second-largest supplier of crude oil but American sanctions have since forced New Delhi to sharply snip its imports from Tehran. Any easing of sanctions as a result of Sunday’s deal will aid India’s access to Iranian oil. “India welcomes the prospect of resolving questions related to Iran’s nuclear programme through dialogue and diplomacy,” the external affairs ministry said.