Negotiators put final touches on Iran accord

PARIS — Iran and a group of six world powers completed a deal on Sunday that will temporarily freeze much of Tehran’s nuclear program starting next Monday, Jan. 20, in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.

The main elements of the deal, which is to last for six months, wereannounced in November. But its implementation was delayed as negotiators worked out technical details.

The agreement faced opposition from Iranian hard-liners and Israeli leaders, as well as heavy criticism from some American lawmakers, who have threatened to approve further sanctions despite President Obama’s promise of a veto.

It comes as Tehran has sought to expand its influence in the Middle East by providing weapons and sometimes members of its own paramilitary Quds Force, in what Western nations view as destabilizing activities in countries including Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, according to interviews with intelligence, military, diplomatic and government officials. However, both the United States and Iran have sought to insulate the nuclear negotiations from the tensions over Iran’s regional policies.

On Sunday, the Obama administration hailed the temporary agreement as an important step that would halt many of Iran’s nuclear efforts, giving international negotiators time to pursue a more comprehensive and durable agreement that would roll back much of Iran’s program and ensure that it could be used only for peaceful purposes.

Mr. Obama said last month at a conference in Washington that he thought there was at best a “50-50” chance of negotiating such a comprehensive agreement. On Sunday, he said he had “no illusions” that a long-term deal would be reached easily.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who came to Paris for an international meeting on the civil war in Syria, also acknowledged that the next phase of the talks would be difficult.

“While implementation is an important step, the next phase poses a far greater challenge,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement.

The interim agreement is, in effect, an elaborate pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord. It adds at least several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb if it decided to pursue a military option, but it can be reversed if either side changes its mind.

Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that is sufficient for energy production but not for a bomb. The country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons-grade fuel, will be diluted or converted to oxide so that it cannot be readily prepared for military purposes.

Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. The agreement does not, however, require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.

American officials said they would stop the promised sanctions relief — worth between $6 billion and $7 billion, according to the White House — if Iran did not fulfill the terms of the interim accord.

A senior administration official noted that $4.2 billion of the relief consisted of Iranian oil revenue frozen in foreign banks, which Tehran will now be allowed to retrieve. But the money is to be meted out in 180-day installments that could be halted if Iran violated the accord. The first installment of $550 million is to be paid at the beginning of February.

Seeking to defend the agreement to hard-liners at home, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, also highlighted its reversibility.

“As this game is played in our court, we cannot lose,” he said on Iranian state television on Sunday. “Nuclear enrichment is our right.”

Mr. Araghchi said that Iran would comply with the interim agreement by removing the connections between networks of centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, so that they can enrich only to 5 percent.

“These interconnections can be removed in a day and connected again in a day,” he said.

Despite the progress on the nuclear issue, Mr. Kerry’s arrival in Paris on Sunday for the meeting of the so-called London 11, a group of nations that back the moderate Syrian opposition, underscored the enormous gulf that remains between Iran and the West.

The United States and its partners are on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict from Iran. As the United States has provided limited support to the opposition, Iran has gone much further, at considerable economic cost to itself, to help sustain President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power in Syria.

Since the interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program was signed on Nov. 24, Iran has sent about 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syria through Iraq, according to American intelligence reports.

To the consternation of the United States, an air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons — including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars — to Damascus.

With the Assad government short of manpower, Iran persuaded Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, to join the fight and has encouraged Iraqi Shiite militias to do the same. It is also recruiting hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan for combat duty in Syria, American officials said.

In a news conference on Sunday, Mr. Kerry said that he had raised the topic of the Syrian conflict with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. For instance, he said, because of Iran’s refusal to accept the American view that the goal of a coming peace conference in Switzerland should be to organize a transitional Syrian government that does not include Mr. Assad, it will be impossible for Iran to participate in the conference.

But Mr. Kerry made clear that cementing a nuclear deal had been a much higher priority than trying to change Iran’s position on Syria.

“Yes, I have raised the subject,” he said. “But we’ve been so focused and so intent on the nuclear file that we have not dug into it in any appreciably substantive way at this time.”

Referring to Mr. Zarif, Mr. Kerry added: “Next time I see him, I certainly will re-raise the issue. I don’t sit around and wait with bated breath or any high expectations that there is going to be a sudden shift of heart on that.”

But Syria is just one place where Iran has been active.

In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force continues to supply arms to Houthi rebel fighters battling government forces in the northern part of the country. Most weapons are smuggled in on small boats, which are hard to track among the thousands of commercial and fishing vessels plying the Persian Gulf, American military officials said. By one United States estimate, the Yemeni Navy intercepts only one of 10 boatloads of weapons funneled into the country by Iran.

“The Tehran-backed Houthis are a capable fighting force,” said an American official who has been following the trend. “They probably don’t need Iranian support, but they’re certainly not going to turn it away.”

In Bahrain, where Iran has ties to several Shiite groups, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on the police, security officials last week seized a ship headed for the country with 50 Iranian-made hand grenades and nearly 300 commercial detonators marked “made in Syria.”

The two Bahrainis captured told interrogators that they had been trained in Iran and were directed by Bahraini opposition figures based there.

The country’s public security chief, Tareq al-Hassan, said that information provided by the suspects had also led to the seizure of plastic explosives, detonators, bombs, automatic rifles and ammunition in a warehouse.

Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there was no contradiction between Iran’s nuclear diplomacy and its assertive posture in the Middle East.

“There is an American tendency to think that arms control and détente go together — that if you can solve the nuclear issue, you can also solve other points of contention,” Mr. Takeyh said. “The Iranians have a more unsentimental view. They see no difficulty in undermining the American presence in the Middle East and pursuing arms control that can be of benefit to them.”

By The New York Times 

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