An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector disconnects components in a uranium production facility Jan. 20 at a nuclear power plant in Natanz, Iran. (AFP)
WASHINGTON — The White House announced Monday that Iran had met its initial obligations under the interim six-month nuclear agreement reached last year, and that the US would immediately start complying with its commitment to soften some sanctions and begin unfreezing Iranian assets overseas.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to US officials on Monday that Iran had ceased enriching uranium up to 20 percent, had disabled some of the equipment that had allowed enrichment up to 20 percent and had begun to dilute its existing stockpile of 20 percent uranium. Those steps, among others, put Iran in compliance with the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) reached in November among the US, Iran, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China.
The IAEA also reported increased access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, as well as an intention to double its staff in the country to handle its expanded monitoring responsibilities.
“You put all this together, Iran complying with the nuclear aided measures of the JPOA, and the expanded access that the IAEA will have, this increases our confidence that Iran cannot break out for a nuclear weapon without the rest of the world knowing in advance, and that is actually the bottom line and the point of the JPOA,” a senior US administration official said on a call with reporters Monday.
“It gives us a six-month period in which we can work on a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge with confidence that Iran is not advancing, and we didn’t want to negotiate this comprehensive agreement with the clock ticking as they are making progress.”
In turn, the US immediately paused sanctions on precious metals and auto parts, and began allowing the export of petrochemicals. The more than $4 billion of assets that the US has pledged to unfreeze will be released in installments over the next six months. Administration officials called the move “modest financial relief.”
The White House also announced that President Obama had delegated his authority to temporarily waive sanctions to Secretary of State John Kerry, a decision that keeps the president’s hands clean during the interim deal implementation and gives Kerry greater authority in negotiations with Iran.
Several media outlets reported that European business people were heading to Iran expecting a wave of new opportunities, which triggered criticism from members of Congress.
“While the positive economic impact on Iran will go beyond this relief, as foreign investors are rushing in, our leverage over Iran shrinks,” Rep Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement. “Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program continues.”
US officials cautioned that most sanctions remain in effect and they intend to vigilantly enforce them.
“It does not in any way mean that Iran is open for business, quite to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of our sanctions and the basic structure of oil and banking and financial sanctions remain in place,” the senior administration official said. “The administration remains committed to aggressively enforcing those sanctions.”
Another senior administration official speaking on the same call with reporters described the sanctions and financial relief as minor, pointing to the more than $30 billion that continuing sanctions on oil exports are expected to cost Iran compared with the more than $4 billion in unfrozen assets and anticipated $2 billion in trade opportunities the JPOA allows.
“This is a drop in the bucket compared to the crippling pressure that Iran still faces,” the official said. “This temporary relief will not fix the Iranian economy, it will not come close. Iran needs between $60 billion to $70 billion a year to finance its foreign imports, as you can hear $6 billion or $7 billion will not fill that hole. Inflation in Iran remains near 40 percent, one of the highest inflation rates in the world, and its economy, which contracted 6 percent in the last Persian year, is expected to contract again this year.”
Critics of the relief measures on Capitol Hill have said these moves lessen the pressure on Iran for a future deal, and the Senate has been flirting for weeks with imposing additional sanctions that would take effect after the interim deal expires to ratchet up the pressure on Iran.
A bipartisan group of senators, including New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, released a statement in November indicating their intent to move forward with legislation.
“A nuclear weapons capable Iran presents a grave threat to the national security of the United States and its allies and we are committed to preventing Iran from acquiring this capability,” the statement said. “We will work together to reconcile Democratic and Republican proposals over the coming weeks and to pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation as soon as possible.”
The Obama administration has been adamant that new sanctions would violate the terms of the interim deal with Iran, pushing them away from the table right as the two countries try to hammer out a final deal.
“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs, and that includes asking you, while we negotiate, that you hold off imposing new sanctions,” Kerry said in December testimony. “Let me be very clear, this is a very delicate diplomatic moment and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today, with gigantic implications of the potential of conflict.”
President Obama, in a meeting last week, tried to convince Democrats not to move ahead with sanctions, although it’s unclear if he effectively peeled off enough votes to prevent legislation.
Part of the ongoing disagreement is over whether Iran should be allowed to retain an enrichment capability at all, something the Obama administration continues to insist must be on the negotiating table.
“We’d like, as an ideal arrangement, for Iran to have no enrichment capability and no stockpile,” the first senior official said. “The issue we have to explore in a set of negotiations is where there is a possible enrichment capability and stockpile that would be consistent with the assurances we need that Iran is not in a position to develop a nuclear weapon without the international community having a long lead time and notice in advance. That’s something we’re going to have to explore. If you look at the Joint Plan of Action itself it envisages the possibility of some enrichment program.”
There has also been pressure to rope in other concerns about Iran, such as Iran’s involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war, but the official said that the negotiators are carefully keeping other issues out of the discussion.
“We continue to have major concerns about aspects of Iranian policy,” the official said. “But we are also determined not to let those concerns stand in the way of our national interest in taking steps to ensure that Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons.” ■