Shortly after the historic nuclear agreement was reached with Iran in the early hours of Sunday morning, John Kerry, US secretary of state, took to Twitter to announce a “first step that makes the world safer”. In one of those gestures that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani promptly retweeted his comment.
For the Obama administration, which is reeling from the chaotic rollout of its healthcare reform and whose credibility has taken a battering with allies and foes from the wavering over Syria, even this interim deal with Iran represents a substantial diplomatic achievement. At a time when its ability to lead internationally is widely questioned, the negotiations are the result of years of pressure from the US which has marshalled tough international sanctions on Iran while maintaining a military threat that only the Pentagon can muster.
The interim agreement reached in Geneva places a cap on central parts of the Iranian nuclear programme in return for modest sanctions relief. However, it still leaves Iran with a substantial nuclear infrastructure which western experts believe could produce the material for a bomb within a few months.
Speaking just hours after the deal was announced, Mr Rouhani declared that “world powers have recognised the nuclear rights of Iran”. Tehran has long insisted that it has a “right” to enrich uranium under international treaties. However, this view was immediately rejected by Mr Kerry, who gave a series of television interviews in Geneva at 5am and claimed an Iranian right to enrich was “not in this document”.
Mr Rouhani also predicted that the sanctions regime against Iran had been broken and that cracks created by the agreement would “widen” – precisely the fear that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, who called the agreement a “historic mistake”, has voiced about the negotiations.
However, the White House was quick to hit back against this claim. US officials said that sanctions relief amounted to $6-$7bn, not the $40bn that some Israel officials had predicted, and that Iran would still lose $30bn in revenue over the next six months from the oil and banking sanctions that remain in place.
“Iran is not back in business and anyone who makes the mistake of thinking so will be met with some serious consequences,” said a senior administration official.
Mr Rouhani faces hardliners at home who will scrutinise the agreement for signs he has sold out. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is trying to fend off pressure from Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran, which he said at the weekend would “derail” the ongoing talks.
Republicans in Congress were critical of the agreement, which they said still left Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact. Bob Corker, the leading Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, said the Iranians saw the Obama administration as “weak”. “From their standpoint, they see this as their window of opportunity to negotiate with an administration that has shown that it really doesn’t have a lot of the intestinal fortitude,” he said.
However, even some of the most hawkish critics in Congress stopped short of pushing the sorts of sanctions bills that would impose new conditions on the next round of talks. Mark Kirk, Republican senator from Illinois, said he would seek tough sanctions if Iran undermined the interim accord or if it had not started to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure in six months’ time, a position compatible with that of the administration.
Nuclear experts said the interim deal contained tougher restrictions than expected on Iran over the Arak heavy water reactor, one of the issues that scuppered talks two weeks ago. It also contained detailed international inspections, not only the daily visits to the main enrichment facilities but also to the uranium milling and centrifuge production facilities which could be crucial if Iran were to make a covert dash to a bomb.
However, even after the interim agreement, Iran’s willingness to dismantle substantial parts of its nuclear infrastructure and to allow inspections of sites where hidden nuclear facilities might exist remains uncertain, analysts said.
“Iran has come as close to the point of nuclear ‘break out’ as a nation can without actually producing weapons grade material,” said Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.