The heavy water plant at Arak is one of several Iranian
facilities under the international spotlight. Photo Getty
Iran has halted its most sensitive nuclear operations
under a preliminary deal with world powers, winning some relief
from economic sanctions in a ground-breaking exchange that
could ease a threat of war.
The United States and European Union both suspended some
trade and other restrictions against the OPEC oil producer
after the United Nations' nuclear watchdog confirmed that
Iran had fulfilled its side of an agreement made on Nov. 24.
The announcements, which coincided with a diplomatic row over
Iran's role at peace talks on Syria, will allow six months of
negotiation on a definitive accord that the West hopes can
end fears of Tehran developing nuclear weapons and Iran wants
to end sanctions that are crippling its economy.
Iranian officials hailed a warming of ties that will also see
their new president make a pitch to international business
leaders at Davos later this week: "The iceberg of sanctions
against Iran is melting," the head of Iran's Atomic Energy
Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian state
Iran should be able to recover $4.2 billion in oil revenues
frozen in foreign accounts over the six months of the interim
deal, as well as resume trade in petrochemicals and gold and
other precious metals. But EU and U.S. officials stressed
that other sanctions will still be enforced during the six
months of talks and that reaching a final accord will be
Israel, which has called the interim pact a "historic
mistake" and has repeatedly warned it might attack Iran to
prevent it developing nuclear arms, said any final deal must
end any prospect of Tehran building an atomic bomb -
something Iran insists it has never had any intention of
The interim accord was the culmination of years of on-off
diplomacy between Iran and six powers - the United States,
Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. It marks the
first time in a decade that Tehran has limited nuclear
operations that it says are aimed mainly at generating
electricity and the first time the West has eased its
economic pressure on Iran.
"This is an important first step," said EU foreign policy
chief Catherine Ashton. "But more work will be needed to
fully address the international community's concerns
regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian
Ashton, who coordinates diplomatic contacts with Iran on
behalf of the six world powers, said she expected talks on
the final settlement to start in February.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said those
negotiations would be "even more complex" and added: "We go
into it clear-eyed about the difficulties ahead."
A White House spokesman said the "aggressive enforcement" of
the remaining sanctions would continue.
A senior U.S. official said: "This temporary relief will not
fix the Iranian economy. It will not come close.
"Iran is not and will not be open for business until it
reaches a comprehensive agreement."
President Barack Obama's administration faces opposition to
the easing of sanctions from Israel and from some members of
Congress who have threatened to tighten some restrictions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament the
temporary pact fell short of preventing Iran from working on
nuclear arms. He said: "In the final deal, the international
community must get the Iranian nuclear train off the track.
Iran must not have the capability to produce atomic bombs."
Israel, assumed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle
East, has been discomfited by U.S. detente with Iran since
the election last year of President Hassan Rouhani, a
relative moderate. He is expected to court global business
this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The deal took months of secret negotiations between
Washington and Tehran and marks a new thaw in relations that
have been generally hostile since the 1979 Islamic
Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to suspend enrichment of
uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, a short
technical step away from the level needed for nuclear
It also has to dilute or convert its stockpile of this
higher-grade uranium, and cease work on the Arak heavy water
reactor, which could provide plutonium, an alternative to
uranium for bombs.
The IAEA said Tehran had begun the dilution process and that
enrichment of uranium to 20 percent had been stopped at the
two facilities where such work is done.
"The Agency confirms that, as of Jan. 20, 2014, Iran ... has
ceased enriching uranium above 5 percent U-235 at the two
cascades at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and four
cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP)
previously used for this purpose," its report to member
It was referring to Iran's two enrichment plants, at Natanz
and Fordow. Cascades are linked networks of centrifuge
machines that spin uranium gas to increase the concentration
of U-235, the isotope used in nuclear fission chain
reactions, which is found in nature at concentrations of less
than 1 percent.
The U.S. government estimates the value to Iran of sanctions
relief at about $7 billion in total, although some diplomats
say much will depend on the extent to which Western companies
will now seek to re-enter the Iranian market.
Analysts said much was still unclear about how world powers
could achieve their goal of ensuring Iran cannot, secretly or
otherwise, develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies in Washington and a proponent of tough sanctions
on Iran, said that by providing short-term economic relief,
the West was losing future bargaining power with Tehran.
"The interim deal does nothing over the next 12 months to
prevent Iran from proceeding with the nuclear-weapon and
ballistic-missile research that are the keys to a deliverable
nuclear weapon," he said. "Ahead of final negotiations,
Tehran will be in a stronger position to block peaceful
Western efforts to dismantle its military-nuclear programme."
The U.N. nuclear watchdog will play a key role in checking
that Iran implements the deal, but its increased access falls
short of what it says it needs to investigate suspicions that
Tehran may have worked on designing an atomic bomb in the
"The accord gives the powers and Iran plenty of flexibility
in going about reducing Iran's nuclear threat to a level the
world will accept," said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie
Endowment. "But it hasn't spelled out how they will work with
the IAEA to resolve allegations Iran has been working on