History was made Saturday night when Western powers and Iran struck an interim deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program. After weeks and weeks of tough negotiations, which followed years of unfruitful talks, the P5 plus 1 (permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) traded sanctions relief for some Iranian steps to halt the country’s uranium enrichment program.
The West has long believed that Iran’s enrichment program is a cover for building a nuclear weapon, which Iran denies. Both U.S. and Israeli intelligence have concluded that the political decision to make a weapon has not been made by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. The Obama administration hailed the deal as one that would halt progress towards becoming a nuclear weapons state.
“Simply put, [the negotiators] cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb,” said President Obama in a speech after the deal was signed.
It marked a new era for U.S.-Iran relations. After decades of mistrust, complete with a shadow war waged around the world, the U.S. and Iran came together to talk and hash out their differences. While the deal is only an interim one, it buys six months of time in order to negotiate an even more far-reaching accord. It also sparked intense opposition from members of Congress and Israel.
Here’s what you should know about the deal that was inked in Geneva on Saturday night:
1. Sanctions Relief for Curbs to Nuclear Program
The basic parameters of a deal have been known for a while, and not much shifted from those parameters when it came to the deal reached in Geneva. Iran will halt enriching uranium above the 5 percent level and “neutralize” its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; that makes the level of enrichment further away from the 90 percent needed to make a nuclear weapon. Iran will stop installing new centrifuges, the equipment needed to enrich uranium, according to the deal. Additionally, the Islamic Republic will stop working on the Arak reactor, a heavy-water facility Western powers suspect could be used to produce plutonium, which is an alternate path towards a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s side of the bargain will be monitored by unprecedented levels of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In return, the U.S. has agreed to sanctions relief that could result in about 7 billion for Iran. The country has been under crippling economic sanctions over its uranium enrichment. The measures the U.S. agreed to will allow Iran temporary access to oil assets that have been inaccessible. The U.S. has also agreed to suspend sanctions on gold and metals, the auto sector, and allow for Iranian petrochemical exports. Europe and the U.S. also agreed not to impose new sanctions over the next 6 months, something that some members of Congress are none too happy about.
2. Israeli and Congressional Opposition
The run-up to the Geneva talks was marked by vociferous objections from the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most ardent backers in Congress. They are opposed to the deal because it allows Iran to continue enriching uranium, a capability they want completely dismantled–a condition Iran will never agree to. Left unsaid is that Israel has its own nuclear weapons program.
Nevertheless, Israel and Congress have continued to stand against the deal after it was signed. Netanyahu said that the deal was a “historic mistake” that has “made the world a much more dangerous place…For years the international community has demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment. Now, for the first time, the international community has formally consented that Iran continue its enrichment of uranium.” Many Congressional members–most of them Republicans, but some Democrats as well–agree.
Israel has long threatened to attack Iran, but this deal makes that attack highly unlikely.
3. Saudi Opposition
Israel is in a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia on this issue. The powerful oil-producing Gulf country has long battled Iran for influence in the Middle East, and they fear that this deal could be a first step towards welcoming Iran into the community of nations. Saudi Arabia believes this will enhance Iranian influence, to the detriment of their own power.
Saudi Arabia has threatened to seek nuclear weapons of its own if Iran obtained one. The country has urged the U.S. in the past to attack Iran, as WikiLeaks revealed.
4. Diplomacy Followed Secret Talks
Saudi Arabia and their Gulf allies are opposed to the Iran deal, though they are now issuing cautious statements of support. But at least one Gulf country wasn’t opposed–and in fact played host to secret talks before the public negotiations took place.
The tiny country of Oman, a strong U.S. ally, played host to secret talks between high-level U.S. officials and Iranian counterparts. They were kept hidden from America’s close allies, though Israel said they found out on their own through intelligence sources in the Gulf.
The talks started even before the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, came to power over the summer. Rouhani’s ascent was made possible by a desire to ease the crippling economic sanctions on Iran and to talk with the West over its nuclear program.
5. Interim Deal Could Lead to Far-Reaching Deal
This diplomatic deal will only last for six months. Between now and that time, though, even more urgent negotiations will take place between the West and Iran. They are looking to sign a far-reaching deal that once and for all calms the concerns of the West over the nuclear program while allowing Iran to maintain some enrichment capability, though Israel wants to halt that part of the deal.
In the meantime, Congress could throw up some roadblocks. Some hawkish officials want to pass new sanctions on Iran even before the six months is up.
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