Top diplomats from Iran and six major world powers said early Sunday that an agreement has been reached in Geneva to temporarily freeze the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for a relief in sanctions which have crippled its economy.
The agreement between the Islamic Republic, United States, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain marks the first time in more than a decade that Iran has agreed to curtail elements of its nuclear program.
The interim deal is not the final word on Iran’s nuclear program—the country’s leaders said Sunday that Iran has the right to enrichment—but instead one that will last for six months. During that period, the negotiators will aim for a comprehensive deal that would significantly scale back its nuclear program and ensure that its remaining power could only be used peacefully.
A senior Obama Administration official told TIME the deal would halt the progress of Iran’s nuclear program, including the heavy-water reactor at Arak. The official added Iran is still not recognized as having the right to enrich uranium. In a preliminary fact sheet provided by the White House, the agreement stipulates that Iran will commit to halting its enrichment above 5 percent, neutralize its stockpile of uranium that’s enriched to 20 percent—just shy of weapons-grade—and provide inspectors access to its facilities. In return, the sanctions relief will be “limited, temporary, targeted and reversible.” An overwhelming majority of the sanctions will remain in place.
For four days, the diplomats participated in marathon negotiations to overcome differences and form a deal that would halt the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. At nearly 3:00am local time, news of the accord was announced in a flurry of messages on social media.
In a speech after the deal’s announcement, President Barack Obama, who has made halting Iran’s nuclear program a top foreign policy goal of his administration, called the interim deal “an important first step” after “intensive” diplomacy. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path to a world that is more secure.” He called these “substantial limitations” that will prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and in return they would receive “modest” relief from the sanctions.
The accord includes a commitment by participating countries not to impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, “to the extent permissible within their political systems.”
In his remarks, Obama relayed a sharply-worded warning to Congress, where hawkish lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been pushing for a new round of sanctions, that breaking that commitment would have dire consequences for U.S. foreign policy.
“Going forward, we will continue to work closely with Congress,” Obama said. “However, now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions—doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies, and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.”
After Obama’s speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at a press conference in Geneva early Sunday morning. “The purpose of this is very simple: to require Iran to prove the peacefulness of its nuclear program and to prove that it cannot acquire a nuclear weapon,” he said. “It will make our partners in the region safer. It will make our ally Israel safer.” In return, certain sanctions on precious metals and automobiles, among others, would be eased.
As word of the deal spread, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No.2 Republican in the Senate, took to Twitter with criticism, saying this was an effort by the White House to deflect attention away from the new health care law: “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care.”
Speaking to CNN, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said: “The question really for the world is will Iran under this deal have to dismantle their capability to enrich uranium in a serious way.” He added: “The question is should they be allowed to enrich given their behavior at all? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
In a statement, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he remains concerned that the deal wouldn’t “adequately” halt Iran’s enrichment capabilities: “As this deal goes into effect, the United States must remain vigilant and respond immediately and severely to any cheating or wrongdoing by Iran. And we must rebuild our alliances in the region and stand firmly with our closest partners against Iranian aggression.”
Like Congress, U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia have been skeptical of any deal with Iran.
Joining the western diplomats who shared news of the deal on Twitter, a message was sent from the account of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: “Iranian people’s vote for #moderation & constructive engagement + tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons. #IranTalks.”
— With reporting by Zeke Miller