Thursday 26 April 2018

Iran strikes historic deal to curb nuclear ambitions

President Barack Obama, standing with vice president Joe Biden, speaks at the White House after the Iran nuclear deal was struck (AP)
President Barack Obama, standing with vice president Joe Biden, speaks at the White House after the Iran nuclear deal was struck (AP)
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media (AP)
Foreign ministers pose for a group photo following talks with Iran on their nuclear programme in Vienna (AP)

Iran, the US and other world powers have struck a historic deal to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In exchange, Iran will receive billions of dollars in relief from crushing international sanctions, in a move that will to help ease the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran hanging over the volatile Middle East.

The accord, reached after long, tense negotiations, marks a dramatic break from decades of animosity between the US and Iran, countries that have called each other the "leading state sponsor of terrorism" and "the Great Satan".

US president Barack Obama said in remarks that were televised live on Iranian state television: "This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction.

"We should seize it."

In Tehran, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said "a new chapter" had begun in his nation's relations with the world.

He maintained that Iran had never sought to build a bomb, an assertion the US and its partners have long disputed.

Beyond the hopeful proclamations from the US, Iran and other parties to the talks, there is deep scepticism of the deal among US representatives and Iranian hardliners.

Mr Obama's most pressing task will be holding off efforts by US Congress to levy new sanctions on Iran or block his ability to suspend existing ones.

House Speaker John Boehner predicted the deal would embolden Iran and fuel a nuclear arms race around the world.

It will be difficult for congressional Republicans to stop Mr Obama, however, because of his power to veto legislation.

Israel, which sees Iran as a threat to its existence, strongly opposes leaving the Islamic republic with its nuclear infrastructure in place. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has furiously lobbied against a deal, called the agreement a "stunning historic mistake".

Economic effects could be substantial for both Iran and the world.

In today's trading, benchmark US crude oil prices were down. Iran is an Opec member, but its oil production has been affected for years by sanctions over its nuclear programme.

Any easing of the sanctions could see Iran sell more oil, which could bring down crude prices.

Iran also stands to receive more than 100 billion dollars (£64 billion) in assets that have been frozen overseas, and an end to a European oil embargo and various financial restrictions on Iranian banks.

The nearly 100-page accord aims to keep Iran from producing enough material for an atomic weapon for at least 10 years and imposes new provisions for inspections of Iranian facilities, including military sites.

The deal was finalised after more than two weeks of furious diplomacy in Vienna. Negotiators blew through three self-imposed deadlines, with top American and Iranian diplomats both threatening at points to walk away from the talks.

US secretary of state John Kerry, who did most of the bargaining with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said persistence paid off.

"Believe me, had we been willing to settle for a lesser deal we would have finished this negation a long time ago," he told reporters.

The breakthrough came after several key compromises.

Iran agreed to the continuation of a UN arms embargo on the country for up to five more years, though it could end earlier if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) definitively clears Iran of any current work on nuclear weapons.

A similar condition was put on UN restrictions on the transfer of ballistic missile technology to Tehran, which could last for up to eight more years, according to diplomats.

Washington had sought to maintain the ban on Iran importing and exporting weapons, concerned that an Islamic republic flush with cash from sanctions relief would expand its military assistance for Syrian president Bashar Assad's government, Yemen's Houthi rebels, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other forces opposing America's allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Iranian leaders, backed by Russia and China, insisted the embargo had to end as their forces combat regional scourges such as Islamic State (IS).

Another significant agreement will allow UN inspectors to press for visits to Iranian military sites as part of their monitoring duties, something the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had long vowed to oppose.

However, access is not guaranteed and could be delayed, a condition that critics of the deal are sure to seize on.

Under the accord, Tehran would have the right to challenge UN requests, and an arbitration board composed of Iran and the six world powers would then decide on the issue. The IAEA also wants the access to complete its long-blocked investigation of past weapons work by Iran. The US says Iranian cooperation is needed for all economic sanctions to be lifted.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said his agency and Iran had signed a "roadmap" to resolve outstanding concerns, hopefully by mid-December.

By Monday, the remaining gaps in the deal were bridged in a meeting that started with Mr Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

Mr Zarif later joined the meeting, and shortly thereafter, the ministers emerged and told aides they had an accord.

The deal comes after nearly a decade of international, intercontinental diplomacy that until recently was defined by failure. Breaks in the talks sometimes lasted for months, and Iran's nascent nuclear program expanded into one that Western intelligence agencies saw as only a couple of months away from weapons capacity. The US and Israel both threatened possible military responses.

The US joined the negotiations in 2008, and US and Iranian officials met together secretly four years later in Oman to see if diplomatic progress was possible.

But the process remained essentially stalemated until summer 2013, when Mr Rouhani was elected president and declared his country was ready for serious compromise.

Press Association

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