GENEVA — Iran and six world powers announced early Sunday that they had reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
“We have reached an agreement,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted after 3 a.m. The spokesman for the lead European negotiator, Catherine Ashton, made a similar announcement via Twitter. “We have reached agreement,” the tweet from Michael Mann said.
Details of the accord were not available, but a news conference was expected and a signing ceremony was scheduled for the early morning hours in Geneva. In Washington, President Barack Obama also was expected to make a statement.
The agreement came after a marathon negotiating session and brought a dramatic end to what had been three rounds of talks, the outcome of which was never certain.
The deal will almost certainly be greeted skeptically by some of the United States’ closest regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as members of Congress who’ve voiced skepticism about the talks. Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for former President George W. Bush — without knowing any details of the deal — immediately accused the Obama administration of selling out its allies.
“The Iran deal and our allies: You can’t spell abandonment without OBAMA,” he said via Twitter.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli officials had been in contact throughout the day with at last two of the Western foreign ministers at the talks in hopes that Israeli concerns would be incorporated into the deal.
In spite of what was certain to be mixed reaction to an accord — only last week the Senate agreed to put off a vote to tighten sanctions on Iran — the accord marked a breathtaking warming in Iran’s troubled relationship with the United States and other Western nations that began with a charm offensive by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani’s visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September culminated with a phone conversation with Obama — the highest level contact between the United States and Iran in more than three decades.
That phone call was quickly followed by a new series of negotiations in Geneva that quickly made progress, after a decade of stalemate, over Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States and other nations feared was intended to develop a nuclear bomb. But while all sides in the multi-nation talks said the gap on an interim agreement had been narrowed, agreement was elusive. What had been expected to be an agreement two weeks ago ended in failure after France objected to some of its provisions.
Sunday morning’s accord came after hours of “intensive” and “difficult” talks — for the second time in two weeks — as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia struggled to find an agreement that would rein in Iran’s nuclear program while easing some of the tough sanctions that had been imposed in recent years.
The deal is designed to give the sides six months to nail down a final accord that would ensure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon.
A major sticking point had been Iran’s insistence that it be allowed to continue construction of a reactor that could give it a path toward a nuclear weapon through the production of plutonium. The Arak reactor is considerably behind schedule, but France in particular has insisted that work on the facility be halted.
Another issue appeared to be the degree of sanctions relief the United States would be willing to give Iran, whose economy has been devastated by measures imposed for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, which produces fuel for power plants and for nuclear warheads.
Iran also has been pressing for recognition of what it claims to be its right to enrich uranium, a right that the United States doesn’t recognize, especially because Iran kept its program hidden from international inspectors for 18 years. Moreover, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency has evidence that Iran researched a missile-borne nuclear warhead until late 2003.
As the talks ground on Saturday, recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took to Twitter to insist anew that Iran isn’t seeking a nuclear arsenal.
“It should be evidence and indispensible that Iran is neither seeking nor will it ever seek WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction),” Rouhani wrote.
Kerry met twice during the day with Iran’s Zarif and Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief and the main negotiator for the “P5 Plus 1,” the collective name for the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.
As they shuttled between meetings throughout the day, Western and Iranian officials re-emphasized that substantial progress had been made during the four days of talks and two previous rounds of negotiations.
“That means there are many areas of agreement. There is a huge amount of agreement and it remains the case that there has been a huge amount of progress being made in recent weeks,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters.
But Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi gave a less optimistic spin, telling Iran’s semi-official FARS news agency that, “Difficult and intensive negotiations are underway and it is not clear if we will achieve the results tonight or not.”
“We’ve agreed on 98 percent of things, but two very difficult percent remains,” he said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted that Iran’s demand to continue construction of the Arak heavy water-moderated reactor remained an outstanding issue.
He was quoted as saying by the official Russian news agency Itar-Tass that the sides were closer to a breakthrough than they were during the last round on Nov. 7-9, but “Unfortunately, I can’t say that there is a certainty of reaching that breakthrough.”
The Western diplomats, who declined to be identified because of the delicacy of the negotiations, said that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was holding firm to a demand that Iran suspend construction of the Arak reactor during the six-month interim deal.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that maintaining the facility is a red line that cannot be negotiated.
The P5 Plus 1 have been pressing an interim deal that would freeze the expansion of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, thereby lengthening the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead before detection by U.N. inspectors.
That would mean halting its production of near 20 percent enriched uranium, which can quickly be turned into warhead fuel, and disposing of its stockpile of the substance, which far exceeds what Iran needs to fuel a research reactor that it uses for nuclear medicine.
Iran would also freeze the number of centrifuges, the machines in which enrichment takes place, it is operating and agree to more intensified inspections of its nuclear facilities by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
In return, it could access a small amount of foreign assets that are now frozen and receive other limited sanctions relief.