Iran and six world powers lay groundwork for historic nuclear deal

(From left) British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, US Secretary of State John Kerry, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif react during a press event aft
(From left) British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, US Secretary of State John Kerry, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif react during a press event after the end of a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

LAUSANNE (AFP) - Iran and six world powers agreed Thursday on the framework of a potentially historic deal aimed at curbing Teheran’s nuclear drive after marathon talks in Switzerland.

It marks a major breakthrough in a 12-year standoff between Iran and the West – which has long feared Teheran wants to build a nuclear bomb – and raised hopes the deal could help stability in the Middle East.

US President Barack Obama welcomed the “historic understanding” with the Islamic republic after decades of hostility but cautioned that more work needed to be done.

“If Iran cheats, the world will know it,” he said in a televised address from the White House.

But Iran’s arch-foe Israel branded the deal a “historic mistake”.

The main outlines agreed after eight days of talks that sometimes went through the night in the Swiss city of Lausanne now have to be finalised in a highly complex agreement by June 30.

Failure may set the United States and Israel on a road to military action to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive and keep Teheran out in the cold on the international stage.

‘BIG DAY’

US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed a “big day”, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the drafting of a full accord would begin immediately with the aim of completing it by the June 30 deadline.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the United States and the EU will lift all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran once the UN atomic agency has verified that Teheran has stuck to the ground-breaking deal.

And the US said all past UN nuclear resolutions on Iran would also be lifted.

Kerry said Iran’s stocks of highly enriched uranium will be cut by 98 per cent for 15 years while its Arak reactor will stop producing weapons-grade plutonium.

The Fordo facility, built deep into a mountain, will remain open but will not be used for enrichment but for research and development.

Iranian media said the deal will include Iran slashing by two-thirds – from 19,000  to 6,000 – the number of centrifuges, which can make fuel for nuclear power but also the core of a nuclear bomb.

Iranian negotiators had been under pressure from domestic hardliners not to give too much away – while also delivering on Rouhani’s promise to win the lifting of sanctions.

The so-called P5+1 group – the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia plus Germany – hope that the deal will make it virtually impossible for Iran to make nuclear weapons.

Iran, one of the world’s major oil producing countries, has always denied seeking the atomic bomb saying its activities are for energy generation and research.

'SANCTIONS CAN BE REIMPOSED'

France, which has taken a hawkish line during the negotiations, warned that sanctions could be reimposed if Teheran does not fully keep its side of the bargain.

“Sanctions that are lifted can be reimposed if the deal is not applied,” President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement, adding that Paris would watch closely to ensure a “credible” and “verifiable” final agreement that prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the international community had never “been so close to an agreement preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons”.

Russia, which built Iran’s nuclear power plant, hailed the deal as a recognition of Tehran’s “unconditional right” to pursue a civilian nuclear programme.

Successful implementation of the deal could put Iran and the United States on the road to better relations after 35 years of animosity since the 1979 hostage crisis in Teheran.

“A comprehensive, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will contribute to peace and stability in the region and enable all countries to cooperate urgently to deal with the many serious security challenges they face,” UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.

Obama wasted no time in trying to sell the deal to sceptical allies, saying he would call Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he invited key Arab allies to a spring summit at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Obama needs a deal which he can sell to hostile Republicans in Congress, who remain suspicious of Iran’s pledges and are threatening to push for new sanctions from April 14.

Republicans and US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that if too much of Iran’s nuclear programme is left intact, it will still have the ability to obtain an atomic bomb.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, whose country is widely assumed to have the bomb, warned before Thursday’s announcement that the “military option is on the table”.

Crude oil prices fell in New York after the framework accord was announced, with the US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for May delivery down 95 cents to US$49.14 a barrel.