Sanctions relief as Iran commits to nuclear curb

  Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry  yesterday following a landmark deal meaning Iran will halt parts of its nuclear programme. Picture: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Iran struck a historic deal with the US and five other world powers, agreeing to a temporary freeze of its nuclear programme in the most significant agreement between Washington and Tehran in three decades.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani endorsed the deal, which commits Iran to curb its nuclear activities for six months in exchange for limited and gradual sanctions relief, including access to $4.2bn (€3.1bn) from oil sales. The six-month period will give diplomats time to negotiate a more sweeping agreement. It builds on the momentum of the public dialogue opened during September’s annual UN gathering, which included a 15-minute phone conversation between President Barack Obama and moderate-leaning Mr Rouhani, who was elected in June.

The package includes freezing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium at a maximum 5% level, which is well below the threshold for weapons-grade material and is aimed at easing Western concerns that Tehran could one day seek nuclear arms.

Mr Obama hailed the pact’s provisions, which include curbs on Iran’s enrichment and other projects that could be used to make nuclear arms, as key to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threat.

“Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb,” he said.

For Iran, keeping the enrichment programme active was a critical goal. Iran’s leaders view the country’s ability to make nuclear fuel as a source of national pride and an essential part of its insistence at nuclear self-sufficiency.

Giving up too much on the enrichment programme would have likely brought a storm of protest by Iranian hard-liners, already uneasy over the marathon nuclear talks and Mr Rouhani’s outreach to Washington.

In a nationally broadcast speech, Mr Rouhani said the accord recognises Iran’s “nuclear rights” even if that precise language was kept from the final document because of Western resistance.

“No matter what interpretations are given, Iran’s right to enrichment has been recognised,” said Mr Rouhani.

Saying “trust is a two-way street,” he insisted talks on a comprehensive agreement should start immediately.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led his country’s delegation, called on both sides to see the agreement as an “opportunity to end an unnecessary crisis and open new horizons”. However, initial reaction in Israel was strongly negative. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the deal, a “historic mistake”.

Speaking to his Cabinet, Mr Netanyahu said Israel is not bound by the deal and reserves the right to defend itself. That is a reference to possible military action against Iran.

Mr Netanyahu has said the international community is giving up too much to Iran, which it believes will retain the ability to produce a nuclear weapon and threaten Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who joined the final negotiations along with the foreign ministers of Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, said the pact will make US allies in the Middle East, including Israel, safer reducing the threat of war.

“Agreement in Geneva,” he tweeted. “First step makes world safer. More work now.”

The deal marks a milestone between the two countries, which broke diplomatic ties 34 years ago when Iran’s Islamic revolution climaxed in the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran.

A White House statement said the deal limits Iran’s existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, which can be turned into the fissile core of nuclear arms. The statement also said the accord curbs the number and capabilities of the centrifuges used to enrich and limits Iran’s ability to “produce weapons-grade plutonium” from a reactor in the advanced stages of construction. The statement also said Iran’s nuclear programme will be subject to “increased transparency and intrusive monitoring”.

In return for Iran’s nuclear curbs, the White House statement promised “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible (sanctions) relief” to Iran, noting that “the key oil, banking, and financial sanctions architecture, remains in place.” And it said any limited sanctions relief will be revoked and new penalties enacted if Iran fails to meet its commitments.

Uranium: the facts

Here are answers to some important questions about uranium enrichment.

What is uranium enrichment?

It is the process of turning uranium into nuclear fuel. It’s done with centrifuges that separate and concentrate the uranium. About 3.5% enrichment is needed for an energy-producing reactor such as Iran’s Russian-built plant at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast.

Higher levels ofenrichment, about 20%, are needed for research reactors that produce isotopes for cancer treatment and other applications. Iran has one main research reactor.

So why the worry about nuclear weapons?

Because uranium enriched to 20% is only several steps away from being boosted to weapons-grade levels. Iran says it has no intention of building a bomb. But the West and others worry Iran could start a fast-track weapons programme with its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium or stop just short of making weapons and become a de facto nuclear-armed state.

Why won’t Iran give up enrichment?

This is what Iran has frequently called its “red line”. Iran’s leaders say they will never relinquish control over the entire nuclear cycle as a matter of national pride. Iran portrays itself as an emerging technological giant of the Islamic world.

Is it possible to make a bomb with enrichment at 5% or lower?

No. But Israel and others worry that giving Iran the capacity to enrich could open the door to a secret programme for higher levels someday. Iran denies this and has agreed to even closer UN inspections.

When did Iran start enrichment?

It was announced in 2006, but enrichment was part of disputes between Iran and the West for more than a decade. In late 2003, Iran agreed to suspend its work on installing centrifuges as part of nuclear talks with European envoys. The negotiations at the time faltered and Iran moved ahead with its enrichment plans.

Where are Iran’s enrichment sites?

Iran has two main uranium enrichment facilities. The oldest and largest — in Natanz, 260km south-east of Tehran — is largely built underground and surrounded by anti-aircraft batteries. Another site is known as Fordo, built into a mountainside south of Tehran. It was kept secret by Iran until it was disclosed in Sept 2009 in a pre-emptive move before its existence was revealed by Western intelligence agencies. The area is heavily protected.

How many other countries enrich uranium?

More than a dozen countries have enrichment programmes, but several of those do not have nuclear weapons.


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