Nuclear Deal Came After Secret, High-Level Washington-Tehran Talks

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Nov. 24 2013 2:15 AM

Nuclear Deal Came After Secret, High-Level Washington-Tehran Talks

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(L to R) Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius shake hands after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva

Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Update: The United States and five world powers reached a historic nuclear deal with Iran early Sunday that would temporarily put a freeze on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The deal is temporary, lasting for about six months, and should provide the building blocks for a permanent agreement. U.S. officials highlighted that it marked the first time in almost a decade that there has been an international deal that requires Iran to roll back some of its nuclear program, reports the New York Times. More than that though, it marks “the first time in 33 years that Washington and Tehran have concluded a formal agreement,” as senior fellow Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings told Reuters. “Even six months ago, few would have imagined this outcome.”

How did the deal appear to come about so quickly after such a long period of tensions between Iran and the West? Part of the reason may be that the United States and Iran “secretly engaged in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks over the past year,” reveals the Associated Press. The talks, which were personally authorized by President Obama and took place in Oman, were kept hidden from U.S. allies, including Israel, until two months ago. And only a small circle of top advisers even knew they were going on.

The United States outlined that under the deal Iran had agreed to stop all enrichment above 5 percent and “neutralize” its uranium stockpile of 20-percent uranium, which is considered close to what it would need for a nuclear weapon, by diluting it with natural uranium or converting it into metal fuel rods.  Tehran also agreed to not increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for six months and vowed to not install new centrifuges. On the key question of the partly constructed Arak heavy-water reactor that could be a source of plutonium, which the Wall Street Journal says “nearly killed an agreement in the later stages of diplomacy,” Iran agreed to halt production of fuel for the plant and vowed not to put it into operation.

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In addition to the technical limits, Iran has also agreed to what the White House is calling “unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring” of the nuclear program that includes daily oversight by nuclear inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, Iran will get between $6 billion to $7 billion of sanctions relief, about $4.2 billion of which would come from oil revenue that would “be allowed to be transferred in installments if, and as, Iran fulfills its commitments.” The White House took pains to emphasize that even $7 billion in relief amounts to “a fraction of the costs that Iran will continue to incur during this first phase under the sanctions that will remain in place.”

President Obama spoke from the White House and praised the work of the negotiators. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure—a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon,” he said. “While today’s announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote on Twitter that the agreement is “good for the whole world, including Middle Eastern countries and the people of Iran themselves.”

But not everyone was happy with the deal. "Israel cannot participate in the international celebration, which is based on Iranian deception and (international) self-delusion," Israel's Cabinet minister for intelligence issues, Yuval Steinitz, said, adding that the deal “is more likely to bring Iran closer to having a bomb.” Several Republican lawmakers also spoke up against the deal, saying any agreement needed to be more extensive if it had any hope of containing Iran’s nuclear ambition. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida agreed with Israel that the agreement “makes a nuclear Iran more likely.” Meanwhile, Rep Edward Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had “serious concerns that this agreement does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies,” reports the Washington Post.

Original post on November 23, 2:21p.m.: Secretary of State John Kerry joined the foreign ministers of five other world powers in Geneva on Saturday for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, with speculation rising once again that a groundbreaking agreement could be imminent. Still, diplomats from both sides were careful to throw cold water on any speculation and played down expectations, saying that an agreement was far from a certainty.  

"The foreign ministers have come to support these negotiations and to be able to confer together easily and quickly if we need to make fresh decisions of any kind," British Foreign Minister William Hague said, according to the Guardian. "They remain difficult negotiations. I think it's important to stress that. We're not here because things are necessarily finished. We're here because they're difficult." The State Department also lowered expectations that a deal was imminent but a spokeswoman did say that negotiators appear to be “closer than we’ve ever been in a decade to achieving a diplomatic agreement for a first step with the Iranians,” reports the Washington Post.

Negotiators are focusing on the wording of a six-month agreement that would provide Iran some relief from economic sanctions if it agrees to roll back some of its nuclear program. Yet Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Fars news agency that it was unclear whether the two sides could come to an agreement this weekend, reports the Associated Press.

There was some hope that negotiators managed to find a middle ground between Iran’s insistence that any agreement recognize its right to enrich uranium by acknowledging that all countries have a right to civilian nuclear energy, notes Reuters. “The language is seen as vague enough that both sides can argue that they have stuck to their negotiating positions,”  notes the Wall Street Journal.

Now the top sticking points appear to be Tehran’s insistence on continuing work on a heavy water reactor Iran is building that could eventually produce plutonium. Iran is also advocating for faster relief from sanctions, whereas the United States and its allies want it to be more of an incremental process. Diplomats are now arguing over language because “every word and expression has its own meaning and requires caution,” as Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif put it, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.