Experts: Interim deal paves the way only for still tougher Iran nuclear talks

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 24, 2013 

— The interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program that was announced early Sunday in Geneva appears to be a remarkable breakthrough that meets the Obama administration’s goal of extending the time it would take Iran to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for financially insignificant relief from sanctions.

The deal also marks a step towards a peaceful resolution of what had been a looming confrontation that some estimated say could claim tens of thousands if it were ever to be resolved militarily.

But the political elite in both the United States and in Iran gave the agreement a muted welcome at best, reflecting the lack of trust between Iran and the outside world dating back to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Fueling that distrust is Iran’s history of episodic cooperation with United nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency and genuine fears by each side that the other will welsh.

The question on the morning after the accord is whether the Obama administration and five other world powers can agree on a comprehensive agreement with Iran, or if detractors in and out of government both in the United States and abroad will find a way to derail the process.

In the U.S. Congress, leading figures in both parties Sunday voiced deep skepticism that Iran would follow through on its pledges to severely curb its nuclear enrichment program.

While President Barack Obama has called for a halt to further sanctions, leading Senate Democrats pledged to approve new sanctions to target Iran’s oil exports, but to hold back on imposing them to see if a comprehensive accord can be negotiated in the next six months.

An equally telling response came from Tehran, where news media and politicians gave a tepid welcome to the agreement, which holds a long-term promise for genuine relief from economic sanctions as part of a “comprehensive solution” to the crisis but only in exchange for giving up on any nuclear program that is not closely monitored by the outside world.

Popular support for a resolution to Iran’s standoff with the international community over the program was shown in the enormous victory by reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani in presidential elections last June, but Iranian officials say he has at best a matter of months before hardliners organize to block implementation of any accord.

In a public letter to Rouhani, Ayatollah Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran’s theocratic regime, said only that it was “befitting” to offer “appreciation and thanks” for “what you have gained” in the Geneva talks, which he said was the “basis for the next wise steps” in the negotiating process.

The immediate reaction to the accord suggest that political leaders in both the United States and Iran thus will be walking on eggshells for the next six months as the two countries sit down with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.

The question on both sides now is whether each can avoid provoking the other into actions that will bring a breakdown of the process.

The result of Sunday’s agreement “is not particularly satisfying for Iranians,” said Trita Parsi, an expert on the Iran nuclear negotiations and president of the National Iranian-American Council.

“Iran has made a calculation that it will pay a relatively higher price in the first round in order to proceed with talks leading to an end state,” he said. That, Iranian officials hope, would be an end to questions before the U.N. Security Council about whether Iran is in compliance with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, international recognition that Iran has a right under the treaty to enrich uranium, though with tight safeguards, and a lifting of the economic sanctions.

Now all eyes are on the negotiations to follow. “The next phase…will be even more difficult...but it will be even more consequential,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after the accord was announced. Leading experts agree.

David Albright, a nuclear proliferation expert who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the accord, by forcing Iran to give up the 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of uranium that it had enriched to 20 per cent purity sets back Iran’s ability to build an atomic weapon quickly. But he said the deal still leaves until the comprehensive accord the final dimensions of that country’s nuclear program, in particular how many centrifuges it can operate in order to enrich nuclear fuel.

“In a way, it pushes some of the hardest work into the future, and we don’t know how it will end up,” he told McClatchy.

Emily Landau, a senior research associate at Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies, said the accord reached Sunday was not “cause for celebration” nor was it “a disaster.” “It’s a deal that can be lived with,” she told McClatchy.

“My concerns go less to the particulars of the deal and more to what’s going to happen between now and the end of the six months when they’re supposed to be negotiating a comprehensive deal.”

She predicted that Iran would be pressing for more sanctions relief, and trying to circumvent the terms of Sunday’s accord while offering minimal concessions.

One of the closest observers of the negotiations, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Berlin, called Sunday’s accord a “remarkable document.”

Still, a comprehensive agreement that Iran adheres to completely won’t be a quick fix to Iran’s outlaw status. He estimated it would take as long as two years before Iran would be in full compliance with IAEA requirements.

But he said the accord completed Sunday morning did contain at least one major achievement: tough restrictions on Iran’s plan to build a heavy water reactor at Arak. That reactor would eventually produce plutonium, another route to producing a nuclear weapon.

“The Arak project has really been defanged,” he said. The accord “went further than many people anticipated it would.”

As for the agreement over all, he said there was now reason to hope that Iran would come to terms with the IAEA.

“As skeptical as I am, this has great potential,” he said. Over the years, Iranian officials offered measures to come into compliance with the requirements of the Non-Proliferation gtreaty, “but mostly they were just playing for time. They were pretending to cooperate. They never really closed the circle on issues. If Iranians do everything they have commited to, we can close the circle, and establish the peaceful nature” of their program.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com, jlanday@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @roygutmanmcc, @jonathanlanday

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