By Louis Charbonneau and Parisa Hafezi
President Barack Obama has pulled off a historic deal with Iran on curbing its nuclear programme but he and other global leaders now have tough work ahead turning an interim accord into a comprehensive agreement.
In a sign of how difficult the coming talks will be, some differences emerged between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart in their public presentation of a key part of the deal – whether or not Iran preserved the right to enrich uranium.
Obama also has to persuade its ally Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the deal as a “historic mistake,” that the accord will reduce and not increase the threat from its arch foe Iran. And he has to sell the accord to skeptics in Congress, including some in his own Democratic Party, who have been pressing for more sanctions on Iran.
The breakthrough accord was reached in the middle of the night at talks in Geneva between Iran, the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. It won the critical endorsement of Iranian clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and marked a clear turn in a US relationship with Iran that has been fraught since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and vexed for years over the Iranian nuclear programme.
But nobody doubted that tough work lies ahead in moving on from the initial deal that allows a six-month period of limits to Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for up to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief, while leaving both the programme and the sanctions in place.
“Now the really hard part begins and that is the effort to get the comprehensive agreement, which will require enormous steps in terms of verification, transparency and accountability,” Kerry said as he began a meeting with British Foreign Minister William Hague in London.
The agreement, which halts Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activity, its higher-grade enrichment of uranium, was tailored as a package of confidence-building steps towards reducing decades of tension and ultimately creating a more stable, secure Middle East.
Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif flew home from Geneva to a welcoming crowd, a reflection of the relief felt by many Iranians exhausted by isolation and sanctions that have been particularly punishing in the last two years.
Zarif said in an interview broadcast on state television that Iran would move quickly to start implementing the agreement and it was ready to begin talks on a final accord.
“In the coming weeks – by the end of the Christian year – we will begin the programme for the first phase. At the same time, we are prepared to begin negotiations for a final resolution as of tomorrow,” Zarif said.
Illustrating the delicate dance that looms, he and Kerry differed in their public descriptions of the part of the agreement regarding Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
Sunday’s agreement said Iran and the major powers aimed to reach a final deal that would “involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities.”
Before heading to Geneva, Zarif had a crucial meeting with Khamenei in the presence of Rouhani, a senior member of the Iranian delegation said.
“The leader underlined the importance of respecting Iran’s right to enrich uranium and that he was backing the delegation as long as they respected this red line,” said the delegate.
What emerged in the text on Sunday was wording that both sides could live with.
Speaking on Iran’s Press TV, Zarif said the deal was an opportunity for the West to restore trust with Iran, adding Tehran would expand cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, to address what he called some concerns.
“In the final step, the (uranium) enrichment process will be accepted and at the same time all the sanctions will be lifted,” Zarif said.
However, on the ABC News programme This Week, Kerry stressed that such a right would be limited and would come about as a result of future negotiations.
He said that under the terms of the agreement, “there will be a negotiation over whether or not they could have a very limited, completely verifiable, extraordinarily constrained programme, where they might have some medical research or other things they can do, but there is no inherent right to enrich…”
The deal also leaves Washington with the task of patching strained ties with its staunch Middle East ally Israel.
Obama telephoned Netanyahu to reassure him that Washington would continue to stand by Israel and to suggest that the United States and Israel should quickly start consultations on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The deal halts Iran’s progress on its nuclear programme, including construction of the Arak research reactor. It will neutralise Iran’s stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 per cent, which is close to the level needed for weapons, allow increased UN nuclear inspections, and halt uranium enrichment over a fissile purity of five per cent.
In return the accord grants about $7 billion in potential relief from sanctions. It will allow a potential access to $1.5 billion in trade in gold and precious metals and the suspension of some sanctions on Iran’s auto sector and petrochemical exports, and also give Iran access to some $4.2 billion in sales from its reduced oil exports.