Iran has halted its most sensitive nuclear activity under a preliminary deal with world powers, winning some relief from economic sanctions Monday in a groundbreaking exchange that could ease the threat of new war in the Middle East.
The United States and European Union both announced they were suspending some trade restrictions against the OPEC oil producer after the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had met its end of the Nov. 24 agreement.
Tehran is expecting to be able to retrieve $4.2 billion in oil revenues frozen overseas and to resume trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals.
The mutual concessions are scheduled to last six months, during which time six powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – aim to negotiate a final accord defining the scope of Iran’s nuclear activity.
The interim accord, struck after years of on-off diplomacy, marks the first time in a decade that Tehran has limited its nuclear operations, which it says have no military goals, and the first time the West has eased economic pressure on Iran.
EU’s foreign policy chief "Catherine Ashton" said "this is an important first step, but more work will be needed to fully address the international community’s concerns regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program". Ashton, who coordinates diplomatic contacts with Iran on behalf of the six powers, said she expected talks on the final settlement to start in February.
Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization "Ali Akbar Salehi" told Iran’s state television that "the iceberg of sanctions against Iran is melting".
The breakthrough is widely seen as a result in part of the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iran’s president last year. Rouhani is expected to court global business this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, although any future trade bonanza depends on the long-term success of nuclear diplomacy.
In Washington, the State Department said those negotiations would be complex and the United States was "clear eyed" about the difficulties ahead. Meanwhile, the White House said, the "aggressive enforcement" of remaining sanctions would continue.
Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to suspend enrichment of uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, a short technical step away from the level needed for nuclear weapons. It also has to dilute or convert its stockpile of this higher-grade uranium, and cease work on the Arak heavy water reactor, which could provide plutonium, an alternative to uranium for bombs.
The IAEA said Tehran had begun the dilution process and that enrichment of uranium to 20 percent had been stopped at the two facilities where such work is done.
Its report to member states said "the Agency confirms that, as of Jan. 20, 2014, Iran ... has ceased enriching uranium above 5 percent U-235 at the two cascades at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and four cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) previously used for this purpose".
It was referring to Iran’s two enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow. Cascades are linked networks of centrifuge machines that spin uranium gas to increase the concentration of U-235, the isotope used in nuclear fission chain reactions, which is found in nature at concentrations of less than 1 percent.
The U.S. government estimates the value to Iran of sanctions relief at about $7 billion in total, although some diplomats say much will depend on the extent to which Western companies will now seek to reenter the Iranian market.
Washington has made clear its view that it is premature for industries to start doing business with Iran again, as most of the sanctions remain in place for now.
The deal was reached after months of secret negotiations between Washington and Tehran and marks a new thaw in relations between the U.S and Iran. The preliminary deal does dampen talk of war: the United States and Israel had both refused to rule out military action against Iranian nuclear sites if the matter could not be resolved by diplomacy.
Israel, which has warned it might take military action, with or without U.S. backing, to prevent Iran developing nuclear arms, has called the deal a "historic mistake" that fails to ensure Tehran cannot build a bomb.
Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal and views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, has rejected the deal because it won’t dismantle the enrichment program.
Israeli Prime Minister "Benjamin Netanyahu" told a special session of parliament that "the interim agreement, which went into force today, does not prevent Iran from realizing its intention to develop nuclear weapons", adding "this objective is still before us".