HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Iran has bowed to international demands and agreed to halt its nuclear program in a sweeping six-month deal with Western powers that observers are calling a major diplomatic victory for the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama, in a televised statement from the White House late Saturday night, called the deal out of Geneva an “important first step toward a comprehensive solution.”
“These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon,” said the president.
According to the White House, Iran has agreed to halt any enrichment of its uranium stockpiles above 5 percent and to “neutralize” its current stockpiles of uranium already near 20 percent enrichment to back below 5 percent. Iran also will dismantle its ability to enrich above that level.
The agreement requires daily access by United Nations inspectors at Iran’s Natanz and Fordow enrichment sites, while significantly rolling back Iran’s current enrichment capabilities. Iran also agreed not to start new centrifuges and not to proceed with further activity at its Arak plutonium enrichment site.
“In return for these steps, the P5+1 is to provide limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible relief while maintaining the vast bulk of our sanctions, including the oil, finance, and banking sanctions architecture. If Iran fails to meet its commitments, we will revoke the relief,” a White House statement said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was informed of the nuclear deal earlier in the evening, Defense One learned.
“This is an extremely important first step that sets the conditions for a resolution that will be in both our interests,” said a U.S. official, who spoke to Defense One on condition of anonymity moments after the president’s speech. “We’re very clear-eyed in approaching it.”
“The six months will allow us time to make sure Iran doesn’t advance its nuclear capability. It also gives us the time and space to work something that is more permanent,” said the official.“We are in a better place now than we were without a deal. Iran has agreed not to advance further in its program, and this is a first step to take us to something more lasting. It’s just a first step.”
The news brought the Saturday night reception of the high-level Halifax International Security Forum to a halt. The conference hotel filled with Obama administration officials, members of Congress and foreign military dignitaries froze to watch Obama’s White House statement on live television. Some delegates associated with the administration already had popped champagne and applauded Obama’s speech, while others said the temporary deal did nothing to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons goals.
“Despite what conservatives say, this deal is unquestionably better than no deal,” said Mieke Eoyang, director of national security at the Third Way and a former House intelligence committee staffer.
“This is a vindication of both a campaign promise and people arguing within the administration that a deal was possible,” said Heather Hurlburt, senior advisor at the National Security Network and a former speechwriter for President Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Randy Scheunemann, president of Orion Strategies and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, who attended the Halifax conference, harshly criticized the deal. “The point is to end the fuel cycle. The point is to end the nuclear program. The point is just when sanctions are starting to begin you don’t give them relief when they have a history of using negotiations to buy time.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “has said if they can reach three and a half percent [enrichment] they can get nuclear weapons,” Scheunemann said. “This lets them get to three and a half percent. At the end of six months, if they want to walk they give up nothing but six months and gain $6-7 billion.”
“They can’t take yes for an answer,” Eoyang retorted.
Obama, in his statement, said the deal places the onus on Iran to live up to its end of the bargain. “The burden is on Iran to prove to the world its nuclear program will be exclusively for peaceful purposes,” he said.