Iran agrees to nuclear limits


Six world powers and Iran reached a preliminary agreement early Sunday to curb Tehran’s disputed nuclear program after a marathon negotiating session, potentially ending a decade of diplomatic stalemate.

After four days of talks that repeatedly appeared ready to collapse, officials announced that they had agreed on a six-month deal aimed at giving Iran limited sanctions relief in return for temporary curbs on its nuclear program.

The deal could ease the threat of war and reduce tension between the U.S. and Iran, but it could also prove difficult to implement, and the follow-up long-term agreement could be far more difficult to nail down, U.S. officials acknowledge.


“Iran, like any nation, should be able to access peaceful nuclear energy, but because of its record of violating its obligations, Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon,” President Obama said in a late-night statement aired from the White House.

“The burden is on Iran to prove to the world that its nuclear program will be exclusively for peaceful purposes,” Obama said.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said on his Twitter account at 3:03 a.m. Geneva time, “We have an agreement.”

The deal, described by Obama as “an important first step toward a comprehensive solution,” is intended to open the way for what is likely to be even tougher bargaining to reach a comprehensive agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, speaking in Geneva, said that limiting Iran’s nuclear program would expand the time Tehran would need to reach a nuclear weapons capability.

“It will make our ally Israel safer,” he said in a news conference.

But the deal was quickly denounced by leading Republicans in Washington.

“Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said in a Twitter statement.

Obama administration officials have said an agreement would ease what has been long viewed as one of the world’s most urgent security challenges. Iran is believed by some experts to be close to acquiring bomb-making capability, and the administration has threatened to use force, if necessary, to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Even though the six countries and the new government in Iran were eager for a deal, they had clashed over a series of issues related to how closely supervised Iran’s huge nuclear program would be and how much relief it would get from the penalties that have been crushing its economy.

A senior U.S. official said the agreement would halt progress at nuclear facilities at Fordow and Natanz and the partially built heavy- water reactor at Arak. It also calls for more intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and for the “neutralization” of its medium-enriched uranium, which is considered a threat because it can be readily converted to bomb fuel.

Iranian news agencies said the deal recognized Iran’s “right to enrich” uranium, but U.S. officials denied that.

Zarif acknowledged after the announcement that the right demanded by Iran was not spelled out in the text of the agreement. But in a news conference, he said it did not need to be specified because it was Iranians’ inalienable right.

Under the deal, Iran will be allowed to continue producing low-enriched uranium, suitable for energy generation, and it won’t be required to send its nuclear material out of the country, as Western governments previously demanded, said the official Fars News Agency.

As part of the deal, Iran agreed not to install any additional centrifuges, and not to begin operating any of the thousands that are not yet operational. But the deal doesn’t require Iran to dismantle any of its centrifuges, a demand made by Israel.

The agreement will allow Iran to accumulate more low-enriched uranium, to eight tons from the current seven. But it also provides that by the end of the six-month period it must turn that extra material into an oxide form that makes it at least temporarily unusable as bomb fuel.

Sanctions on the use of gold and other precious metals in trading will be lifted, as will sanctions on insurance and the transportation industry.

But that easing will be temporary, and the six nations -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany -- have insisted that core sanctions blocking oil exports and banking transactions will remain in place.

Kerry said the easing of sanctions would be worth $5.7 billion to Iran -- $4.2 billion in revenue from oil sales and $1.5 billion in revenue through easing of sanctions on precious metals and the transportation sector. But he said that the remaining penalties would deprive Iran of $14 billion to $16 billion during the six-month period.

Obama will issue an executive order to carry out the sanctions relief, meaning that he won’t have to seek Congress’ approval.

The president has long hoped that reaching out to the Iranian government, an adversary since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, could bear fruit. Administration officials hope the deal can open the way to a new relationship between the countries.

But it is likely to come under fire from Israel and other Mideast allies, which have expressed fear that an agreement would prove too lenient and would open the way for Iran to secretly acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

Congress could also seek to legislate conditions that could hobble the agreement.

Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), a chief advocate for sanctions, said the agreement “appears to provide the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with billions of dollars in exchange for cosmetic concessions that neither fully freeze nor significantly roll back its nuclear infrastructure.

“Furthermore, the deal ignores Iran’s continued sponsorship of terrorism, its testing of long-range ballistic missiles and its abuse of human rights,” he said.

White House officials made calls to Capitol Hill on Saturday evening as the news broke, a senior administration official said. The administration believes that lawmakers will see that this test of negotiations “is far preferable to the alternative,” the official said.

The official said the president planned to speak to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

The official also acknowledged that the U.S. had conducted separate bilateral discussions with the Iranians throughout the fall. He was responding to an Associated Press report that outlined secret talks between the two countries.

The official said those talks complemented rather than competed with the multinational negotiations. The conversations were an attempt to discuss “ideas that could then be merged” into the negotiations, the official said.

Ali Vaez, an Iran specialist at International Crisis Group in Istanbul, Turkey, though a strong supporter of the diplomatic effort, said he thought the next round of negotiations may prove “almost impossible.”

Zarif said at the news conference that the deal was “an important achievement. But it’s a first step.”

He said the two sides had agreed to create a special commission to oversee the new restrictions on the nuclear program and the easing of sanctions.

“I hope the outcome of this process, in addition to the resolution of the nuclear issue, will be to take concrete steps in the restoration of confidence, particularly the confidence of the Iranian people toward the West,” Zarif said. “That would be a new beginning.”

Asked whether the deal had averted the threat of war, he said, “If we have been able to prevent an illegal action, that will be a major accomplishment.”

The agreement was announced during the third round of talks in the last five weeks. Negotiators for both sides have been alternatively expressing confidence that they were on the edge of a deal and warning that talks might be broken off.

Iran has been resistant to accepting curbs on its nuclear program, which its citizens view as a sign of the country’s technological prowess. From 2003 until this year, Iran showed little interest in acceding to the wishes of the United Nations Security Council to accept limits on its program.

But Iran’s tone shifted in June, after Hassan Rouhani unexpectedly won the presidency with a mandate to ease the crushing economic pressure.

Rouhani was open to the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach and spoke on the phone with the president in September, the first time the country’s leaders had spoken in 34 years.

Kerry said it was not yet time to begin considering other steps to improve the U.S.- Iran relationship. “It’s too early for us to talk about other things,” said Kerry. “It’s just not right.”

Iran’s goodwill has to be proved “by the actions that it takes,” he said.


Times staff writer Kathleen B. Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.