Iran has complied with a landmark arms control agreement and is only days away from dismantling enough of its nuclear infrastructure so the United Nations can begin easing international economic sanctions, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday, even as critics warn that Iran is stirring turmoil across the region.
Speaking at the National Defense University, Kerry said that Iranian technicians had removed the core of the plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak, and that the reactor would be filled with cement and destroyed "in the next hours."
Once that and other final steps are confirmed, the U.N. Security Council is obligated to start lifting the international sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. The government in Tehran will quickly gain access to more than $50 billion in frozen assets and oil revenue, mostly held in Asian banks.
Kerry said that the so-called implementation day "is going to take place very soon, likely within the next coming days somewhere."
Although the terms of the accord have been public since the deal was signed in July, the return of tens of billions of dollars to Iran is especially awkward for the White House, which considers the disarmament deal a signature foreign policy achievement for President Obama and is eager to see it succeed.
Critics say the White House is too eager, especially given the uncertain Middle Eastern political landscape on which the deal is playing out.
In the latest incident, Iran's coast guard detained 10 U.S. sailors Tuesday after their riverine boats apparently strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. The Americans and their vessels were released without harm early Wednesday, and it's still unclear whether the U.S. military personnel were rescued or captured.
A senior State Department official said Wednesday that Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke by phone at least five times Tuesday to discuss the sailors' release. The two diplomats already conduct regular daily conversations regarding implementation of the nuclear deal, the official said.
"Had this happened a few years ago, before we had this very direct line of communication at a very senior level of our government, it undoubtedly would have been much more complicated to unwind, would undoubtedly have taken longer and risked all sorts of ancillary effects that would be unpredictable," said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Administration critics already suspicious of Iranian motives argued that the naval incident, hours before President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech, proved Tehran could not be trusted.
They point to Iran's spat this month with regional archrival Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, and its tests of ballistic missiles last fall in apparent violation of a U.N. resolution that is not part of the nuclear accord.
Capping their concerns, an Iranian naval vessel last month fired several unguided rockets within 1,500 yards of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Harry S. Truman, and other ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
The missile launches also rattled the White House. On Dec. 30, the administration notified Congress that it intended to impose new financial sanctions on individuals and companies in Iran for the missile launches. It then pulled back, although it has not explained why.
Even some Democrats, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the party chairwoman, criticized the White House for not penalizing Tehran.
"The United States and our allies must take immediate, punitive action and send a clear message to Iran that violating international laws, treaties and agreements will have serious consequences," Schultz and six other House Democrats wrote in a letter to Obama.
"Inaction … would send the misguided message that, in the wake of the [nuclear deal], the international community has lost the willingness to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its support for terrorism and other offensive actions throughout the region," they wrote.
Iran is "testing the limits of international patience" with its missile launches, said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations and former advisor to the Obama administration.
Some analysts argue that the backpedaling on sanctions set the stage for a diplomatic flare-up days later between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, and the Shiite Muslim government in Iran, its chief rival for influence and power.
By most accounts, Saudi authorities have lost confidence in Washington as an unflinching ally because of its attempts to engage with Tehran.
Saudis fear the nuclear deal will empower Iran in the short term and allow it to simply postpone its nuclear ambitions for a decade or so, posing an existential threat to the kingdom.
U.S. officials argue that Iran will use any money it gets to prop up its economy, not the military, and that the key nuclear constraints in the deal are permanent.
The dispute spilled over Jan. 2 when Saudi authorities ignored U.S. pleas for leniency and executed a prominent Shiite cleric who had led antigovernment demonstrations.
In response, Iranian protesters burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran while police reportedly stood by. Riyadh then cut diplomatic ties with Tehran, and several Saudi allies soon followed suit.
Iran apologized for the embassy attack and sought to downplay its diplomatic isolation. The Obama administration has taken a neutral stance, calling on both sides to de-escalate.
"Iran sees it has a chance to get out of the penalty box, and they don't want a fight with Saudi Arabia right now," said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based organization that analyzes international affairs.
U.S. experts say Iran's leaders still want to see the nuclear deal proceed — President Hassan Rouhani because of the boost it may give moderates in parliamentary elections next month and supreme leader Ali Khamenei because it allows Iran to reenter the global marketplace and inject life, and cash, into its moribund economy.
In addition to complying with the nuclear deal, Iran has not pulled out of the U.N.-backed Syria talks, which are due to start Jan. 25, and is supporting Iraqi government troops in some combat operations against the militant group Islamic State, issues in which it is in alignment with U.S. efforts.
In Iran, the months after the deal was signed in July saw an uptick in anti-U.S. rhetoric and crackdowns on dissidents. Those actions may have been a sop to domestic hard-liners.
Since the nuclear deal was signed, "Iran has become more aggressive in the region, more repressive at home and less compliant with its arms control obligations," Takeyh said. "But … I think the accord was very favorable to Iran. It would be in their interest to sustain it."
Iran already is well on its way to meeting its obligations under the deal, according to U.S. officials.
It dismantled or mothballed thousands of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, late last year. Last month, Iran shipped 12.5 tons of enriched uranium — nearly its entire stockpile — to Russia for reprocessing, as the accord requires.
Moving that potential bomb fuel tripled the time Iran would need to produce a single nuclear weapon, Kerry said Wednesday, referring to a key goal of the six world powers that negotiated the deal in Vienna.
"I can assure you that we will continue to monitor implementation of this agreement closely because yes, existential challenges are at stake here," he said. "We will ensure that the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran is removed as a threat to Middle East security and global peace."
Once the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, certifies that Iran has met its obligations, the Security Council can vote to lift U.N. sanctions. Various countries or blocs then can begin to ease sanctions and release billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in banks and financial institutions.
It is likely that the first money to become accessible to Iran is an estimated $50 to $60 billion from exports of Iranian oil to several Asian countries. The money has been sitting in Asian banks for years.
The U.S. embargo on trade with Iran will continue, but several exceptions will be allowed, including the import and export of foodstuffs.
Iranian individuals will be removed from U.S. government blacklists, while Europe will allow trade in software, gold and metals, and transportation equipment. Iran will be allowed to rejoin the international banking system and will be permitted to resume selling oil and other energy supplies on the open market.