GENEVA — The United States and five other world powers announced a landmark accord this morning that would temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program and lay the foundation for a more sweeping agreement.
It was the first time in nearly a decade of talks, U.S. officials said, that an international agreement had been reached to halt much of Iran's nuclear program 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 program and ensure that it could be used only for peaceful purposes. A senior Obama administration official said the nuclear deal does not include recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium.
That had been a sticking point in the negotiations.
Shortly after the agreement was signed in the Palace of Nations in Geneva, President Barack Obama, speaking from the White House, 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 toward a world that is more secure,” he said, “a future in which we can verify that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
In Geneva, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he hoped the agreement would lead to a “restoration” of trust between Iran and the United States. Smiling and avuncular, he reiterated Iran's longstanding assertion that its nuclear program was peaceful, adding that Iranians had been misunderstood by the West.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Geneva early Saturday 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 program.”
However, while the interim accord interrupts the Iran's nuclear progress for the first time in nearly a decade, it requires Iran to make only a modest down payment on the central problem.
The deal does not roll back the vast majority of the advances Iran has made in the past five years, which have drastically shortened what nuclear experts call its “dash time” to a bomb — the minimum amount of time it would take to build a weapon if Iran's supreme leader or military decided to pursue that path.
Lengthening that period, so that the United States and its allies would have time to react, is the ultimate goal Obama's negotiating team. It also is a major source of friction between the White House and two allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have made no secret of their belief that they are being sold down the river.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has described the accord announced early today as a “bad deal” that does not require Iran “to take apart even one centrifuge.” That bitter assessment reflects the deep suspicion inside Netanyahu's government that Obama will settle for a final agreement that leaves Iran a few screwdriver turns short of a weapon.
The Saudis have been equally blistering, hinting in vague asides that if the United States cannot roll back the Iranian program, it may be time for Saudi Arabia to move to Plan B — nuclear weapons of its own, presumably obtained from Pakistan, which entered the nuclear club on Saudi subsidies.
Such warnings are part of the expected theater of these negotiations, in which the United States must look simultaneously accommodating enough to a new Iranian leadership to keep fragile talks going and tough enough to its allies and Congress that it cannot be accused of naïveté. That is why Obama, speaking at the White House late Saturday night, called the interim deal a necessary first step. Iran's agreement to convert or dilute the fuel stocks that are closest to weapons grade, Obama said, means that the deal would “cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb.” But it would cut it off only temporarily, long enough to pursue negotiations without fear that Iran would use the time to inch closer to a weapons capability.
But the rollback he won for this first stage, according to American intelligence estimates, would slow Iran's dash time by only a month to a few months.
The most immediate risk to the interim agreement comes from hard-liners in Washington and Tehran who, after examining the details, may try to undo it.
Obama met with senators from both parties last week, hoping to dissuade them from imposing new sanctions just as he is lifting some in an effort to coax Iran toward disarmament. But even some of his closest allies are unconvinced: Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., signed a letter to Kerry last week noting that the temporary accord “would not require Iran to even meet the terms of prior United Nations Security Council resolutions,” which require complete suspension of nuclear production.
On the Iranian side, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which U.S. intelligence agencies have accused of running a secret weapons-design program, may try to chip away at the accord as well, arguing that the sanctions relief is puny and that even the caps on enrichment will slow Iran's efforts to build its nuclear capabilities.
Kerry and his chief negotiator, Wendy Sherman, say they have no illusions that the interim agreement solves the Iranian nuclear problem. It simply creates time and space for the real negotiations, they say, where the goal will be to convince Iranian leaders that the only way to get the most crippling sanctions — those that have cut the country's oil revenue in half — lifted is to dismantle large parts of a program on which they have spent billions of dollars and staked national pride. “Rollback may be a step too far for the Iranians,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Iran's recently elected president, Hassan Rouhani, “can't go there for some time,” Nasr said, “because he can't been seen at home giving up such a huge investment or abandoning national security.”
Lurking over the U.S. negotiating team is the specter of what can go wrong even with a seemingly good deal to buy time. As Sherman was coaxing Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, toward the interim agreement, the North Koreans were restarting a nuclear reactor that they had partly dismantled in a similar agreement struck late in the administration of President George W. Bush — a deal meant to halt North Korea's ability to produce plutonium fuel for weapons.
“It lasted five years, which isn't bad,” said Christopher R. Hill, who conducted the North Korean negotiations for the Bush administration and is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. “But the reality is that, over time, everything is reversible.”
Text of Obama statement on nuclear deal with Iran
Good evening. Today, the United States — together with our close allies and partners — took an important first step toward a comprehensive solution that addresses our concerns with the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program.
Since I took office, I've made clear my determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. As I've said many times, my strong preference is to resolve this issue peacefully, and we've extended the hand of diplomacy. Yet for many years, Iran has been unwilling to meet its obligations to the international community. So my administration worked with Congress, the United Nations Security Council and countries around the world to impose unprecedented sanctions on the Iranian government.
These sanctions have had a substantial impact on the Iranian economy, and with the election of a new Iranian president earlier this year, an opening for diplomacy emerged. I spoke personally with President Rouhani of Iran earlier this fall. Secretary Kerry has met multiple times with Iran's foreign minister. And we have pursued intensive diplomacy — bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5-plus-1 partners — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, as well as the European Union.
Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.
While today's announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back. Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium. Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran's nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.
These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Simply put, they cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb. Meanwhile, this first step will create time and space over the next six months for more negotiations to fully address our comprehensive concerns about the Iranian program. And because of this agreement, Iran cannot use negotiations as cover to advance its program.
On our side, the United States and our friends and allies have agreed to provide Iran with modest relief, while continuing to apply our toughest sanctions. We will refrain from imposing new sanctions, and we will allow the Iranian government access to a portion of the revenue that they have been denied through sanctions. But the broader architecture of sanctions will remain in place and we will continue to enforce them vigorously. And if Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.
Over the next six months, we will work to negotiate a comprehensive solution. We approach these negotiations with a basic understanding: Iran, like any nation, should be able to access peaceful nuclear energy. But because of its record of violating its obligations, Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon.
In these negotiations, nothing will be agreed to unless everything is agreed to. The burden is on Iran to prove to the world that its nuclear program will be exclusively for peaceful purposes.
If Iran seizes this opportunity, the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations. This would provide Iran with a dignified path to forge a new beginning with the wider world based on mutual respect. If, on the other hand, Iran refuses, it will face growing pressure and isolation.
Over the last few years, Congress has been a key partner in imposing sanctions on the Iranian government, and that bipartisan effort made possible the progress that was achieved today. Going forward, we will continue to work closely with Congress. However, now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions — because doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.
That international unity is on display today. The world is united in support of our determination to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran must know that security and prosperity will never come through the pursuit of nuclear weapons — it must be reached through fully verifiable agreements that make Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons impossible.
As we go forward, the resolve of the United States will remain firm, as will our commitments to our friends and allies - particularly Israel and our Gulf partners, who have good reason to be skeptical about Iran's intentions.
Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program. As president and commander-in-chief, I will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush towards conflict. Today, we have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement, and I believe we must test it.
The first step that we've taken today marks the most significant and tangible progress that we've made with Iran since I took office. And now we must use the months ahead to pursue a lasting and comprehensive settlement that would resolve an issue that has threatened our security — and the security of our allies — for decades. It won't be easy, and huge challenges remain ahead. But through strong and principled diplomacy, the United States of America will do our part on behalf of a world of greater peace, security, and cooperation among nations.
Thank you very much.
U.S.-Iran talks in secrecy paved the way for accord
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and Iran secretly engaged in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks over the past year, in a high-stakes diplomatic gamble by the Obama administration that paved the way for the historic deal sealed early today in Geneva aimed at slowing Tehran's nuclear program, the Associated Press has learned.
The discussions were kept hidden even from America's closest friends until two months ago, and that may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.
But the secrecy of the talks may also explain some of the tensions between the United States and France, which earlier this month balked at a proposed deal, and with Israel, which is furious about the deal.
President Barack Obama personally authorized the talks as part of his effort — promised in his first inaugural address — to reach out to a country the State Department designates as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism.
The talks were held in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of people in the know. Since March, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden's top foreign policy adviser, have met at least five times with Iranian officials.
The last four meetings, held since Iran's reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated in August, produced much of the agreement later formally hammered out in negotiations in Geneva, said three senior administration officials. All spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the outreach.
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