U.S. eases sanctions, Iran halts some nuclear work as deal begins

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 20, 2014 

— Iran has started suspending some its uranium enrichment as part of a deal between Tehran and world powers to rein in the nation’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of some economic sanctions, according to an international watchdog.

Negotiators for the nations said they will now begin working on a longer-term, more comprehensive agreement. The United States will send Undersecretary Wendy Sherman to meet her counterparts in Geneva Tuesday to begin talks.

“These actions represent the first time in nearly a decade that Iran has verifiably enacted measures to halt progress on its nuclear program, and roll it back in key respects,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. “Taken together, these concrete actions represent an important step forward.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency – the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog – reported that Iran had taken the initial steps it had committed to by Monday’s deadline as part of a joint plan of action between the nations.

Iran has halted production of 20 percent enriched uranium; has disabled the centrifuge process used to produce it; has begun diluting its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; and started providing the energy agency with more information about its nuclear capabilities through frequent inspections.

In return, the world powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, as well as the European Union – will begin to provide modest economic relief. That includes suspending implementation of sanctions on petrochemical exports, goods imported for use in the auto industry, gold and other precious metals; freeing up Iranian money to help pay educational costs of Iranians, some of whom are attending U.S. colleges; and beginning to allow Iran access to $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian funds.

“This is an important first step, but more work will be needed to fully address the international community’s concerns regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” said Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who has represented the international community in negotiations with Iran. “We aim to start negotiations about a comprehensive solution with Iran in February.”

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, said that during the next six months “it is essential that all parties refrain from provocative actions that could diminish trust and complicate already difficult negotiations.”

“Ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon is an important American and global concern,” he said. “Through energetic, sustained diplomacy, the United States and its partners have forged unprecedented international unity around this issue and created an opportunity to advance our shared security.”

The administration on Monday sent Congress a series of statutory waivers to ease economic sanctions approved by Secretary of State John Kerry; some lawmakers remain skeptical of the deal.

President Barack Obama has been lobbying lawmakers not to implement additional sanctions against Iran, which he says could derail the diplomatic efforts.

Senior administration officials with familiar with the congressional outreach but not authorized to speak publicly said lawmakers were being briefed regularly. Sherman briefed both the Senate and the House leadership and committee chairs last week on the agreement, and more talks are planned both with members and staffers.

“Our outreach to Congress is continued and consistent,” said one of the officials. “But what we don’t believe at this time that now that we have seen this progress, that we should do anything that might undermine it. So that’s certainly the message we are continuing to press with Congress.”

The House of Representatives already voted for new sanctions against Tehran in July, a measure that has not been taken up in the Senate. The sanctions would not take effect unless the negotiations fail. Obama has threatened to veto a Senate bill calling for additional sanctions, which may already have enough support to override a veto.

“Since the Iranian Islamist Revolution in 1979, the U.S. has been hammering the country with economic sanctions,” said A. Cooper Drury, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri. “By threatening further sanctions, as Congress is suggesting, or returning sanctions that were in place, we could derail the whole agreement and cause the Iranians to resist further dialogue.”

Supporters of the Senate bill – the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 – argue that the bill will pressure the Iranians to negotiate in good faith or face economic distress.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week that he’s in no hurry to bring an Iran sanctions bill up for a vote as long as the negotiations are underway and progress is being made.

The United States has also been in contact with Israeli officials, who have been skeptical of the deal, to keep them informed.

“Israel obviously has a great interest in this and a great stake in it, and we are committed to working with them and working transparently with them because we have a common interest in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon or obtaining a nuclear weapon,” said another of the administration officials at Monday’s briefing.

The U.S. and Iran reportedly had been engaged in secret talks since March. Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, began exchanging letters this summer, followed by a historic telephone call between the two leaders.

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