Negotiators give final touches to Iran accord

Negotiators give final touches to Iran accord

The interim agreement is a pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord

Iran and a group of six world powers completed a deal on Sunday that will temporarily freeze much of Tehran’s nuclear program starting next Monday in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions. 

The main elements of the deal, which is to last for six months, were announced in November. But its implementation was delayed as negotiators worked out technical details. The agreement faced opposition from Iranian hard-liners and Israeli leaders, as well as heavy criticism from some US lawmakers, who have threatened to approve further sanctions despite President Barack Obama’s promise of a veto. 

It comes as Tehran has sought to expand its influence in the Middle East by providing weapons and sometimes members of its own paramilitary Quds Force, in what Western nations view as destabilising activities in countries including Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, according to interviews with intelligence, military, diplomatic and government officials. However, both the United States and Iran have sought to insulate the nuclear negotiations from the tensions over Iran’s regional policies. 

On Sunday, the Obama administration hailed the temporary agreement as an important step that would halt many of Iran’s nuclear efforts, giving international negotiators time to pursue a more comprehensive and durable agreement that would roll back much of Iran’s program and ensure that it could be used only for peaceful purposes. 

Obama said last month at a conference in Washington that he thought there was at best a “50-50” chance of negotiating such a comprehensive agreement. On Sunday, he said he had “no illusions” that a long-term deal would be reached easily. 

Secretary of State John Kerry, who came to Paris for an international meeting on the civil war in Syria, also acknowledged that the next phase of the talks would be difficult. “While implementation is an important step, the next phase poses a far greater challenge,” Kerry said in a statement. 

The interim agreement is, in effect, an elaborate pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord. It adds several additional weeks to the time that Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb if it opted to pursue a military option, but it can also be reversed if either side changes its mind. 

Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that is sufficient for energy production but not for a bomb. The country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons-grade fuel, will be diluted or converted to oxide so that it cannot be readily prepared for military purposes. 

Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. The agreement does not, however, require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, or to dismantle any existing centrifuges. 

US officials said they would stop the promised sanctions relief - worth between $6 billion and $7 billion, according to the White House - if Iran did not fulfill the terms of the interim accord. A senior administration official noted that $4.2 billion of the relief consisted of Iranian oil revenue frozen in foreign banks, which Tehran will now be allowed to retrieve. But the money is to be meted out in 180-day installments that could be halted if Iran violated the accord. The first installment of $550 million is to be paid at the beginning of February. 

Reversibility of the agreement

Seeking to defend the agreement to hard-liners at home, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, also highlighted its reversibility. “As this game is played in our court, we cannot lose,” he said on Iranian state television Sunday. “Nuclear enrichment is our right.” 

Araghchi said that Iran would comply with the interim agreement by removing the connections between networks of centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, so that they can enrich only to 5 percent. “These interconnections can be removed in a day and connected again in a day,” he said. 

Despite the progress on the nuclear issue, Kerry’s arrival in Paris on Sunday for the meeting of the so-called London 11, a group of nations that back the moderate Syrian opposition, underscored the enormous gulf that remains between Iran and the West. The United States and its partners are on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict from Iran. As the United States has provided limited support to the opposition, Iran has gone much further, at considerable economic cost to itself, to help sustain President Bashar Assad’s hold on power in Syria. 

Since the interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program was signed on Nov. 24, Iran has sent about 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syria through Iraq, according to US intelligence reports. To the consternation of the United States, an air corridor over Iraq has emerged as the main supply route for Iran to send weapons - including rockets, anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars - to Damascus, Syria. 

With the Assad government short of manpower, Iran persuaded Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, to join the fight and has also encouraged Iraqi Shiite militias to do the same. It is also recruiting hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan for combat duty in Syria, American officials said. 

In a news conference on Sunday, Kerry said that he had raised the topic of Iran’s support for the Assad government with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. For instance, he said, because of Iran’s refusal to accept the American view that the goal of a coming peace conference in Switzerland should be to organize a transitional Syrian government that does not include Assad, it will be impossible for Iran to participate in the conference. 

But Kerry made clear that cementing a nuclear deal had been a much higher priority than trying to change Iran’s position on Syria. “Yes, I have raised the subject,” he said. “But we’ve been so focused and so intent on the nuclear file that we have not dug into it in any appreciably substantive way at this time.” 

Referring to Zarif, Kerry added: “Next time I see him, I certainly will re-raise the issue. I don’t sit around and wait with bated breath or any high expectations that there is going to be a sudden shift of heart on that.” 

But Syria is just one place where Iran has been active. It is also recruiting hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan for combat duty in Syria, officials said. 

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