November 24, 2013 10:01 am

Q&A: Iran nuclear agreement

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EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton (2-L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (3-R) attend talks over Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva, Switzerland, 22 November 2013. World powers hold a make-or-break third day of talks with Iran on its nuclear programme, with no clear sign that a deal is within sight on freezing its atomic activities in exchange for easing sanctions©EPA

Negotiating teams led by Lady Catherine Ashton (left centre) and Mohammad Javad Zarif (centre right) in Geneva

The six powers of the US, China, Russia, France, Germany and the UK reached an interim agreement with Iran early on Sunday – after a marathon four days of talks at the end of a decade of diplomacy. The deal imposes limits and rollbacks on the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme in exchange for a modest easing of sanctions said by the US to be worth about $7bn. Called a Joint Plan of Action, the final text released by both sides runs to four pages.

What is the objective of the agreement?

The six powers wanted a first step agreement that would see Iran grant significant concessions during a six-month period, giving a breathing space and confidence to negotiators to try and reach a comprehensive settlement that will satisfy international concerns over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Did Iran win any significant nuclear concessions?

Yes. The international community, through UN Security Council resolutions, had previously called on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment programme that could, if taken far enough, produce weapons-grade uranium. But the Geneva agreement allows Iran in the interim period to enrich uranium up to 5 per cent – the level needed for a civilian power reactor – as long as it does not exceed its current stockpiles of uranium enriched to that level.

Did Iran achieve one of its main aims of getting recognition of its ‘right’ to enrich uranium?

That was a big obstacle right to the end of the talks. The US refuses to acknowledge such a “right” but the agreement gave Iran de facto, if not explicit, recognition.

What did Iran give up?

Rather a lot. Iran will “neutralise” its stockpile of 20 per cent uranium by diluting below 5 per cent or converting to a form not suitable for further enrichment; halt progress on its enrichment capacity; and leave inoperable about half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of centrifuges at Fordow.

Iran will also commit to freeze activities at its Arak heavy-water facility which is under construction and, if operable, could produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon. Iran would also not construct a facility capable of reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel.

How will all this be verified?

Iran has agreed to what the US calls “unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring” of its facilities. The text calls this “enhanced monitoring” by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily access by IAEA inspectors at the Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment plants.

Experts said those two facilities were already under the most stringent controls exercised by the IAEA anywhere in the world, with inspectors visiting about once a week without advance notice. But significantly the IAEA would also be given “managed access” to Iran’s facilities developing centrifuges, and to uranium mines and mills.


Iran’s nuclear sites

Iran nuclear sites

Profiles of seven of the key nuclear sites around the country

What about sensitive known military sites?

There seems to be a discrepancy here. A White House “fact sheet” on the deal says the two sides agreed to establish a “joint commission” to work with the IAEA which would “facilitate resolution of past and present concerns . . . including the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s activities at Parchin”. Western powers suspect Parchin was being used to develop a nuclear warhead. But the official text makes no mention of Parchin or a possible military aspect.

What are the main problems ahead?

Iran has already implemented some of the demanded curbs on enrichment and Arak in recent months. The most thorny issue ahead in negotiating the comprehensive settlement is likely to be for how long Iran must continue to accept limits on its programme that other parties to the non-proliferation treaty are not bound to. Five years? Twenty years? The text says “a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon”. But very important for Iran is the accord’s concluding paragraph which in effect says that if Iran lives up to these to-be agreed commitments then it will be treated like any non-weapons state belonging to the NPT.

Are they reading from the same sheet?

Not totally. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that Iran’s enrichment programme would continue and be part of any future agreement. Minutes later, John Kerry, US secretary of state, insisted that enrichment beyond six months would be decided during negotiations to come. The text says the final step of a comprehensive solution would “involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters”.

How was the mood in Geneva and does this deal have a chance?

Both sides were clearly anxious to make this historic breakthrough, especially Mr Kerry’s team, with Congress threatening to impose more sanctions next month. One late night negotiator ordered takeaway pizzas to cut time. The sense of relief at the end was palpable and negotiators looked cheerfully exhausted, especially Lady Ashton, EU foreign policy chief who earned plaudits from the Iranians and her six-power partners. Both the US and Iran have worries about selling this deal back home to their respective hardliners. They all know the negotiations to come will be even more difficult, but they are also driven by a sense that this could lead to a sea change in US-Iranian relations after 34 years of hostility.

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