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Iran Nuclear History: Interim Deal

(August 2015)

On November 23, 2013, the P5+1 (USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia) and Iran reached a set of initial understandings aimed at halting the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. This interim deal, set for six months, was designed to give negotiators more time to work with the Islamic Republic on a permanent solution to the nuclear crisis.

The details of the agreement stipulate that Iran will halt enrichment above 5%, neutralize its stockpile of near-20% uranium, cease development of its enrichment capacity, stop activities at the Arak nuclear facility and provide daily access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors at the Natanz and Fordow sites. In return, the international community will not impose new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for at least six months and will suspend certain sanctions on gold and precious metals, Iran’s auto sector, and Iran’s petrochemical exports (White House, November 23, 2013).

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration led the international effort for a deal with Iran, called the agreement “an important first step toward a comprehensive solution” of the Iranian nuclear dilemma and credited his administration’s push for diplomacy and its adoption of stern economic sanctions for “a new path toward a world that is more secure.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pitched the deal to Congress saying: “We make sure that these sanctions don't get lifted in a way that reduces the pressure on Iran. The Iranian nuclear program is actually set backward and is actually locked into place in critical places.” (Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2013)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, criticized the overtures to Iran and warned of a crisis ahead. “What was achieved in Geneva is not an historic agreement; it is an historic mistake,” said a statement released by Netanyahu. “This is a bad agreement. It gives Iran exactly what it wants: both substantial easing of sanctions and preservation of the most substantial parts of its nuclear program” (Prime Minister’s Office, November 23, 2013).

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird noted he was “deeply skeptical” of the interim deal and said that “Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt” (Globe & Mail, November 24, 2013).

Conversely, Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah hailed the deal as a “major victory” for Iran and a “defeat for the enemies” of the Islamic Republic (Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2013).

The last details of this temporary agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA – later known as the Comprehensive plan of action or JCPOA) were finalized by the P5+1 on January 12, 2014, and pursuant to the agreement much of Iran’s nuclear capabilities were supposed to be temporarily frozen after January 20. Although this plan was originally rolled out in November of 2013, it was not ready to take effect or finalized until January 2014. Iran agreed to this temporary halt in uranium production in exchange for foreign aid from the West in the form of sanctions relief totaling $6-$7 billion (New York Times, January 12, 2014).

According to Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s chief “non-negotiator” during the P5+1 negotiations with Iran during 2013-15, Israel had some success in influencing the outcome of the talks. “Without our intervention,” he claimed, “the agreement would have been much worse. Almost all the positive elements in the agreement were put there due to our pressure (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, July 29, 2018).

As an example, he said that Iran was enriching uranium to 20-25% and Israel wanted to limit this to 3.5% in the agreement. The Americans said it was too late to make this demand, but Steinitz convinced the French Foreign Minister to give the Iranians an ultimatum to reduce the enrichment level. “The Iranians walked out, the Americans were furious,” Steinitz said, “but one month later they returned to Vienna and signed the agreement with this restriction, which was also included in the final agreement which was signed two years later.”

On July 2, 2014, after this temporary agreement was reached, a new round of negotiations took place and a date of July 20 was set for a possible permanent solution to be reached with all parties involved. However, on July 18, the P5+1 and Iran agreed to a four month extension of the talks as they did not believe that an agreement could be met. The talks were extended until November 24 and the White House released a statement that after the extension there is a “credible prospect for a comprehensive deal.” Others were less confident an agreement was feasible (The Jerusalem Post, July 19, 2014).

The IAEA’s monthly report for July 2014 indicated that Iran had in fact cooperated with all aspects of scaling down its nuclear capabilities agreed to in the Joint Plan of Action.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran rose on July 22, 2014, when Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife Yegani Salehi were detained in Iran by security officers dressed in plain clothes. The two were taken to an undisclosed location but were not charged with any crimes. Iranian media reported that they were spies relaying sensitive information to Washington. The Iranian government subsequently announced in April 2015 that Rezaian and his wife were being charged with espionage and acting against Iranian national security.

In attempts to bridge the gaps between the demands of the Iranians and the security concerns of the other players involved, negotiations resumed on August 7, 2014. U.S. diplomats met Iranian leaders in Geneva in the first meeting since July 18 when it was decided that the current negotiations were fruitless and the agreement date was extended until November 24. The first days of the talks were “constructive” according to White House officials, and after the weekend Iranian President Hassan Rouhani referred to Iranians who are opposed to striking a nuclear deal with the West as “political cowards.”

Rouhani favored an agreement that would include lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran; however, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dismissed the value of negotiations, especially with the United States. He said on August 13, 2014, “Some pretend that if we sit down with Americans at the negotiating table, many of the problems will be resolved. We knew that won't be the case but developments in the past year proved this reality once again.”

The IAEA’s Yukiya Amano arrived in Tehran on August 17 for meetings with Iranian leaders and senior officials. The IAEA had recently been given increased access to Iran’s nuclear facilities pursuant to the interim agreement struck in November, and they were trying to determine the past, present, and future military capacity of the Iranian nuclear program. During these meetings, Rouhani repeatedly emphasized that missiles were not on Iran’s nuclear agenda and that Iran was willing to cooperate with the IAEA.

Afterward, Amano said the meeting with Rouhani was “useful” and he received a firm commitment from the Iranian officials that they would cooperate with the IAEA’s inquiry. This meeting came before the August 25 deadline for Iran to implement transparency measures and provide relevant information to the IAEA on the military dimensions of its nuclear program (Bloomberg, August 17, 2014).

On August 16, 2014, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the chances that an agreement will be achieved by November 24 “are low,” adding that even if they came close to an agreement more time would be needed to hammer out the details. The Iranians were particularly resistant to accepting any limitation on their uranium enrichment capabilities or the number of centrifuges they were allowed to maintain (Tehran Times, August 16, 2014).

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated on August 21, 2014, that Iran would be willing to help the U.S. and other nations fight and defeat ISIS in Iraq but, in return for their help, they asked for all sanctions to be removed. This offer came in response to France’s call for all countries in the region to work together to crush ISIS. The United States made clear, however, it would not lift sanctions to gain Iran’s help with ISIS (Business Insider, August 21, 2014).

As part of the interim deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 on August 23, 2014, Iran opened a new uranium conversion plant to convert nuclear weapons grade uranium into a material that cannot be weaponized. Located in the Iranian city of Isfahan, the new plant was viewed as a positive step toward preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities (ABC News, August 23, 2014).

The IAEA deadline for Iran to implement transparency measures and fully disclose the possible militarization of their nuclear capabilities came and went without a final word from Iran. By the August 25, 2014 deadline, set in November 2013, Iran had yet to satisfy international concerns regarding their nuclear program. The IAEA had given Iran a list of five demands, which were not publicly disclosed, but were believed to include full disclosure of explosive experimentation and statistical measurements of their nuclear facilities. “They have 5 demands and questions... some are completed, and some are in the process of being completed,” providing no elaboration on this statement (Voice of America, August 25, 2014).