Negotiators from Iran, the US and five other world powers have reached agreement on a landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, diplomats here announced Tuesday.
The agreement, one of the most consequential and controversial international diplomatic achievements in decades, brings to a close nearly two years of talks, capped by a final, intense 18-day round of bargaining which lasted late into Monday night.
The agreement is designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least a decade.
In a statement from the White House, President Obama hailed the deal as an example of “American leadership.”
“Because America negotiated from a position of strength and principle, we have stopped the spread of nuclear weapons” to Iran, Obama said. “This deal is not built on trust, it is built on verification.”
By contrast, no deal would mean a greater chance of war, he said, vowing to veto any congressional effort to block the agreement.
“This deal offers the opportunity to move in a new direction” in the relationship between Iran and the rest of the world, Obama said. “We should seize it.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani similarly announced the deal to his country, in a televised address from Tehran. “Our prayers have come true,” he said.
A senior Iranian official in Vienna said he expects the United Nations Security Council to consider a new resolution that sets out the blueprint for the deal, and to adopt it in a week to 10 days.
“We believe this is a good agreement,” the official said. “There’s no need for spinning.”
Announcement of the deal is all but certain to set off an intense debate within the US and internationally.
Under its terms, Iran will accept a series of restrictions on its nuclear activities, some of which will last considerably longer than 10 years, and will allow inspection of known and suspected nuclear sites. In exchange, the US, Europe and the United Nations will agree to lift sanctions that have had a crushing impact on Iran’s economy.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who played a crucial role in the talks, said sanctions will only be lifted when Iran has taken a series of initial steps, including dismantling a heavy water reactor at Arak and shipping nearly all its enriched uranium out of the country.
The restrictions and inspections are designed to lengthen the so-called breakout period – the amount of time that Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb if its leaders made the decision to race for one.
US intelligence agencies believe Iran currently could achieve that goal in about two to three months. The deal aims to increase the breakout period to at least a year, which Obama says would give the US time to respond – militarily, if necessary – to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.
The agreement aims to achieve that goal by limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to enrich uranium, as well as the amount of uranium the country can stockpile. The inspection requirements are designed to prevent covert enrichment efforts.
US officials said the deal came together late Monday night after 17 days in which the bargaining had veered between success and deadlock.
Kerry and other Western officials had hoped that foreign ministers could give the deal a final blessing Monday, but the last hours proved more difficult than expected, as officials from the seven countries involved – the US, Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – wrangled over wording of the United Nations Security Council resolution that will eliminate earlier nuclear-related sanctions on Iran and set out the blueprint for the new agreement.
The Security Council is now expected to approve that resolution within weeks.
The final tradeoffs dealt with Iran’s desire – backed by Russia – to end the current UN embargoes on its trade in ballistic missiles and conventional arms. Under the agreement, the arms embargo will be lifted in five years, and the missile embargo in eight.
Both embargoes could be eliminated before that time if the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, determines that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful and in compliance with international rules. But such determinations take time.
Just before midnight Sunday, when ministers had signed off on the main elements of the 100-page agreement and its five annexes, Kerry phoned President Obama at the White House. But the group was too weary for any cheering, a senior official said.
“There was not this sort of triumphalist celebration,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the conversations.
The Obama administration regards the deal as a crowning achievement that resolves a security threat which could have led to war. Beyond that, a nuclear deal could potentially open the way for an end to decades of hostility between the US and Iran, Obama has said. He has also said the deal would be worth having even if those additional benefits are not achieved.
Critics, including virtually all of the Republican presidential hopefuls, some Democratic lawmakers and officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia, regard Obama’s diplomacy as dangerously naive. A deal will simply strengthen Iran, they say.
Even if Iran complies with the deal’s terms, the country will emerge after a decade or more in a stronger position than ever and will resume its quest for nuclear weapons at that point, the critics argue.
The nations involved in the negotiations agreed on many of the terms of the agreement in April during talks in Lausanne, Switzerland. A senior Western official called the final agreement “Lausanne plus.”
Under the agreement’s terms, Iran will reduce its centrifuge inventory by two-thirds and eliminate 98% of its stockpile of enriched uranium, leaving 300 kilograms. It will overhaul its heavy water reactor at Arak so that it will not produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The agreement also sets up a procedure aimed at ensuring that UN inspectors will be able to look at sites where they suspect violations may be taking place.
Iran had insisted that it would not allow inspections of its military sites. But under the agreement, inspectors from the IAEA will be allowed in. If Iran objects to a request for access, it can turn to a new joint commission to decide whether access should be granted. The commission includes the six nations that have been negotiating the agreement, as well as Iran and the European Union.
A majority vote – five of eight members – will determine whether access will be granted. This arrangement is intended to prevent Russia, China and Iran from being able to block an inspection request. The entire challenge procedure is to be over within 24 days, a period short enough that Iran wouldn’t be able to conceal evidence that it had secretly begun a covert facility, such as a uranium enrichment plant, officials said.
The agreement also sets up a so-called “snapback” process to allow United Nations Security Council members to put sanctions back into place if there is evidence that Iran has violated the agreement.
The Security Council will vote to suspend the current sanctions against Iran. Periodically, that suspension will come up for renewal. If the US or any other permanent member of the council believes Iran has cheated, it will have the power to veto the renewal, putting sanctions back into force. US officials say this unusual arrangement will give UN members considerable leverage to assure that Iran sticks to its pledges.
The group also worked out a compromise on the sensitive issue of Iran’s suspected past research on nuclear weapons.
Iran has not wanted to confess to previous violations of nuclear agreements. Under the current deal, it will have to perform a list of specified tasks to give the IAEA more information about its past program.
The sanctions on Iran won’t be lifted until the IAEA certifies that Iran has fulfilled the list of requirements. The specified tasks are limited, however, and won’t require Iran to fully come clean on its past activities, diplomats acknowledge.
Kerry has publicly said the US already has full knowledge of what Iran has previously done, but US and other Western governments said that Iran could not be allowed to have violated IAEA requirements with impunity.
Another key issue involves Iran’s future activities – how much advanced nuclear research Iran will be permitted after the 10 to 15 years of restrictions imposed by the agreement.
The US and its allies have wanted to block Iran from accelerating enrichment of uranium by adding more sophisticated centrifuges in the future. If Iran added new, more advanced centrifuges after the initial 10 years, its breakout time potentially could decline from one year to almost nothing.
A US official insisted that continuing restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capacity would assure that the breakout time does not collapse. For example, Iran would still be required, for 15 years, to limit its stockpiled of low enriched uranium to a 300-kilogram maximum, the official said.
The breakout time “will come down some; it will not fall off the cliff,” a senior official said.
Iran will receive a powerful boost from sanctions relief when its has taken specified steps to pare its nuclear program and allow inspectors more access to it.
Once the IAEA has verified that Iran has fulfilled it obligations, the United States and European Union will abruptly suspend sanctions that have cut 1 million barrels a day from Iran’s oil sales and severed it from the international financial system.
On this “implementation day,” Iran will be able to sell oil, rejoin the international financial system, and access overseas assets worth an estimated $100 billion to $150 billion.
US officials have said it may take Iran as much as six months to get to that point, pushing the implementation day into 2016. But a senior Iranian official told reporters that the country could do it all in “a matter of weeks.”
As details of the agreement became public, reaction fell quickly along expected lines.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long an opponent of the negotiations, called the agreement, “an historic mistake for posterity.”
Oil markets passed their judgment as well, with the price of crude oil dropping as traders anticipated the additional oil Iran will be able to pump after sanctions are lifted.
Congress will now have 60 days to review the deal, and the Republican majorities in both houses are highly likely to pass a resolution disapproving it. But the opponents are not expected to have the votes to override Obama’s promised veto.
Because of that, opponents will try undermine the agreement politically, in the hope that the next president will abandon it.
Obama has authority to waive most current US economic sanctions without congressional approval, although the restrictions would remain on the books unless Congress votes to remove them.