Iran, major powers achieve interim deal on nuclear program

President Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iran's nuclear program at the White House on Nov. 23, 2013. (T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images)

President Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program at the White House on Nov. 23, 2013. (T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Iran and the major powers achieved an interim deal to freeze some nuclear activity in exchange for some sanctions relief.

“We have reached an agreement,” Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister leading talks in Geneva, said on his Twitter feed early Sunday morning.

According to a White House statement sent to reporters later in the evening, Iran will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, but will be able to continue enriching to 5 percent. Iran will neutralize its existing stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium and will not install or build any new centrifuges, except to replace damaged machines.

Five percent is well below the enrichment level needed for weaponization. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium even at low levels brings it too close to a breakout capacity for nuclear weapons.

Under the interim agreement negotiated in Geneva, sanctions relief would amount to about $7 billion out of the $100-120 billion that annually impacts Iran’s economy, the White House statement said.

Although some sanctions relief would affect Iran’s energy sector, the statement said the principal sanctions targeting Iran’s banking and energy sectors would remain in place.

The negotiators now have six months to work out a final deal.

President Obama, in televised remarks delivered late Saturday night from the White House, said that he would dedicate this period of time to solving an issue “that has threatened our security and the security of our allies for decades.”

He appealed to Congress not to pass intensified sanctions, saying that to do so would endanger any deal and unravel the alliance that has kept pressure on Iran through sanctions until now.

Obama also said that the “resolve of the United States will remain firm” and so would “the commitment to our allies” that had reason to be skeptical of Iran, naming Israel among them.

Israeli Cabinet ministers told various media in the country that they saw the deal as a victory for Iran.

In a conference call, a senior Obama administration official said that the president planned to call Netanyahu on Sunday and brief him on the deal.

A number of Jewish organizations put out statements within an hour or so of the announcement of a deal.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said the deal “has the potential to serve as a valuable stepping stone to a final agreement that can serve the long term security interests of the United States, Israel, the Middle East and the entire international community” and also called for maintaining economic pressure.

Notably, the JCPA statement did not call for intensifying sanctions, although a number of pro-Israel groups are backing moves in Congress that would enhance sanctions.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a leader in the effort to add new sanctions, said he would keep up the effort but appeared to make the sanctions conditional on Iran’s observance of the new agreement.

“I will continue working with my colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation that will impose tough new economic sanctions if Iran undermines this interim accord or if the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not underway by the end of this six-month period,” he said in a statement.

The American Jewish Committee expressed concerns about the agreement, saying many questions were unanswered. “Does the agreement preserve, explicitly or implicitly, an Iranian ‘right’ to enrich uranium?” it asked.

Iran is seeking recognition of its right to enrich; the United States insists there is no such right.

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