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Last updated: November 24, 2013 10:52 am
Iran has agreed to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of tough international sanctions, in a historic deal that follows a decade of on-off negotiations aimed at preventing Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.
Foreign ministers representing six world powers – the US, Russia, China, Germany, France and the UK – clinched the agreement in the early hours of Sunday morning after four days of tough talks in Geneva.
The White House said the interim agreement would give Tehran sanctions relief worth $7bn over the next six months, in exchange for a halt to Iran’s production of higher-grade enriched uranium and vigorous international inspections of its nuclear facilities, setting the stage for the six powers to negotiate a comprehensive settlement.
In a major concession, the six powers agreed that Iran could continue to enrich uranium up to the level of 5 per cent required for generating power from a nuclear reactor. Previous UN Security Council resolutions had required Iran to freeze its enrichment activities.
Key oil, banking and financial sanctions would remain in place and be enforced during the interim deal.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, welcomed the deal. “The government is happy that such an agreement at such a level has been reached between Iran and major powers after 10 years whether it is for six months or [the] interim,” Mr Rouhani said at a press conference in Tehran on Sunday.
He described the agreement as an achievement which “whether others like it or not” will make “cracks” in the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
US President Barack Obama described the agreement as “an important first step”, that “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”.
But he added that if “Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the [sanctions] relief, and ratchet up the pressure”.
A senior US official insisted that the sanctions relief being offered to Iran was “limited, temporary, targeted and reversible” and would automatically expire after six months if there were no final agreement.
The official added that the US would continue to enforce the sanctions that remain in place, including the core oil and financial sanctions, and would “not tolerate” any individuals or companies who tried to circumvent the restrictions on doing business on Iran.
“In the next six months, Iran’s crude oil sales cannot increase,” the US state department said in a fact sheet released shortly after the deal was reached.
China and South Korea have been drastically cutting imports of Iranian crude oil in recent months in order to win renewed waivers from the US-led sanctions programme.
But with the state department pledging to allow purchases to remain at their current levels, the pressure on buyers to reduce Iranian purchases is likely to ease. The suspension of EU and US sanctions on oil shipping and insurance, detailed in a copy of the interim agreement posted on an Iranian news website, could make it easier for Iran to ship crude to India.
Kenneth Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Foundation, said the second stage of talks would be much harder than the interim agreement that has just been reached.
“The concessions that both sides will be required to make will be far more painful,” he said, especially for Iran. “If Tehran insists on standing on principle – especially on its ‘right’ to enrich and the lifting of ‘all’ sanctions – such a resolution may well prove impossible.”
Profiles of seven of the key nuclear sites around the country
Mr Obama appealed to Congress to hold off from approving new sanctions on Iran during the six months of follow-up nuclear talks, despite pledges by a number of senior senators to take up new sanctions legislation in December. New punishments on Iran “would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies, and risk unravelling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place”, said Mr Obama.
However, the announcement of the agreement did not win a warm reception from several senior Republicans. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, said that “unless the agreement requires the dismantling of the Iranian centrifuges, we really haven’t gained anything”.
John Cornyn, the Texas senator, said in a tweet that it was “amazing what the White House would do to distract attention from Obamacare”.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, called the interim agreement a “historic mistake”.
“What was achieved last night in Geneva is not an historic agreement; it is an historic mistake,” Mr Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting. “Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world.”
Even though the initial relaxation of sanctions is expected to have only limited benefits for the Iran’s hard-pressed economy, analysts say the broader confidence generated by the landmark agreement will help Iran’s business climate.
Additional reporting by Monavar Khalaj in Tehran and Ajay Makan in London
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