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10th May 2021

US and EU bring Iran in from the cold

  • The talks - involving China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the UK, and the US - began 18 months ago, but were preceded by secret Iran-US diplomacy (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

The US and EU have agreed to lift most sanctions on Iran in return for a 15-year freeze on uranium enrichment and full access for UN inspectors.

The breakthrough was announced on Thursday (2 April) in Lausanne, Switzerland, by the foreign ministers of six world powers, Iran, and by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who chaired the almost week-long final stage of talks.

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  • Mogherini and Zarif - The EU's top diplomat was advised by her predecessor in the European post, Catherine Ashton (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

It was hailed by EU leaders, and by US president Barack Obama, whose speech was broadcast live on Iranian TV.

It was also greeted by street parties in Tehran, where people have lived under international isolation and in economic hardship for over three decades.

“Today, the United States - together with our allies and partners - has reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon”, Obama said.

“In return for Iran’s actions, the international community has agreed to provide Iran with relief from certain sanctions”, he added.

“If Iran violates the deal, sanctions can be snapped back into place. Meanwhile, other American sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorism, its human rights abuses, its ballistic missile programme, will continue to be fully enforced”.

He noted that the main alternative to a deal was to “bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities”.

But he said this would have started “another war in the Middle East”, ensured “that Iran would race ahead to try and build a bomb”, and triggered “a nuclear arms race in the region”.

In Lausanne, a smiling Mogherini and her Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Zarif, read out a joint statement in English and in Farsi.

They said the accord “will ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme” and that “the EU will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions”.

German chancellor Angela Merkel added from Berlin: “This is a huge achievement for all negotiators”.

The French president, Francois Hollande, like Obama, underlined that “sanctions can be reimposed if the agreement is not implemented”.

Malcontents

The deal is both good and bad for Russia, which took part in the talks.

On the one hand, it doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Islamic state on its southern doorstep.

On the other hand, Obama noted the Iran deal shows that economic sanctions, which the US and EU recently imposed on Russia, work. The prospect of Iran’s return to international oil markets, which, on Friday alone, saw oil prices drop by $3/barrel, will also harm Russia’s oil revenues.

But Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, welcomed the deal. “We are satisfied with the result of this run, this marathon”, he said.

Saudi Arabia, which is fighting a proxy war with Iran, and Israel, whose PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, says Iran wants to destroy Israel were the most unhappy.

Obama telephoned the Saudi king and Netanyahu on Friday.

The king said nothing in public. But Netanyahu said: “This deal would legitimise Iran's nuclear programme, bolster Iran's economy, and increase Iran's aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond”.

"It would increase the risks of nuclear proliferation in the region and the risks of a horrific war."

Next steps

The Lausanne accord, a so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), contains multiple elements.

The main ones are: Iran won’t enrich uranium past 3.5 percent, the nuclear weapons mark, for 15 years; it will reduce its stockpile of 3.5-percent-plus uranium from 10 tonnes to 300kg; it will cut its number of enrichment centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,104; and it will stop production of heavy water in amounts which could be used to make plutonium.

It will also allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN watchdog, full access, including surprise visits, to all sites for at least 25 years.

Technical details of the JCPOA are to be fleshed out in a comprehensive treaty by 30 June.

The US, EU, and UN-level sanctions are to be phased out from July onward pending step-by-step IAEA verification of Iranian compliance.

Summing up the implications for Iran’s nuclear energy programme, Zarif told Iranian TV: "None of our facilities will be closed down".

“We will continue enriching [uranium]. We will continue research and development. Our heavy water reactor will be modernised”.

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