Six powers clinch breakthrough deal curbing Iran’s nuclear activity

Iran and six world powers clinched a deal on Sunday [24 Nov 2013] curbing the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for initial sanctions relief, signaling the start of a game-changing rapprochement that would reduce the risk of a wider Middle East war.

Aimed at easing a long festering standoff, the interim pact between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia won the critical endorsement of Iranian clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the deal struck after marathon, tortuous and politically charged negotiations cut off Tehran’s possible routes to a nuclear bomb.

But Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy a U.S. ally, denounced the agreement as an “historic mistake”. Critics in the U.S. Congress were quick to voice concern, with some raising the spectre of failure to rein in North Korea on its nuclear programmes, but they signalled that Congress would likely give the deal a chance to work.

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.

Indeed, the United States held previously undisclosed, separate direct talks with Iran in recent months to encourage diplomacy towards a nuclear deal, a senior U.S. official said.

Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic relations since the Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Any new detente between the two will be opposed by Washington’s Israeli and conservative Gulf Arab allies as it could tilt the regional balance of power towards Tehran.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been coordinating diplomatic contacts with Iran on behalf of the major powers, said the accord created time and space for follow-up talks on a comprehensive solution to the dispute.

“This is only a first step,” said Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif. “We need to start moving in the direction of restoring confidence, a direction which we have managed to move against in the past.”

Zarif said later 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.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking as he began a meeting with British Foreign Minister William Hague in London, noted Sunday’s deal was only a start.

“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, according to a U.S. reporter who attended the session.

Downtrodden by sanctions, many Iranians expressed joy at the breakthrough and prospect of economic improvement. Iran’s rial currency, decimated earlier this year due to sanctions, jumped more than 3 percent on news of the deal on Sunday.

Obama said that if Iran did not meet its commitments during the six-month period covered by the interim deal, Washington would turn off the tap of sanctions relief and “ratchet up the pressure”.

“There are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon,” he said in a late-night appearance at the White House after the deal was sealed. “Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a steady critic of the talks, condemned the agreement as it left intact Iran’s nuclear fuel-producing infrastructure. “What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake,” he said.

“Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon,” he said in public remarks to his cabinet.

He reiterated a long-standing Israeli threat of possible military action against Iran – even as a member of his security cabinet conceded that the interim accord limited this option.

Kerry sought to reassure Israel, saying Iran’s bomb-making potential had been restricted and its atomic programme would be more transparent.

“I believe Israel in fact will be safer, providing we make sure that these … sanctions don’t get lifted in a way that reduces the pressure on Iran – and we don’t believe they will be, there’s very little sanctions relief here – that the basic architecture of the sanctions stays in place,” he told CNN.

RELIEF, ELATION IN GENEVA

Some analysts pointed out the risk of hardliners acting to scuttle the breakthrough – whether Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards who see any opening to the West as dangerous, or critics in the U.S. Congress.

A key U.S. Democrat said on Sunday that while the U.S. Senate is likely to consider legislation that would threaten new sanctions on Iran if it does not comply with the interim deal, it would also provide a six-month window before any of the actions would take effect.

Senator Robert Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the legislation would make clear that the sanctions would be available if the talks falter or if Iran fails to implement or breaches the interim agreement.

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