UN atomic watchdog likely to report that Iran has complied with nuclear deal: Sources

The reactor at the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Teheran.
The reactor at the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Teheran. PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA (AFP) - The United Nations atomic watchdog will likely say on Saturday (Jan 16) that Iran has complied with last July's landmark deal with major powers aimed at putting a nuclear bomb out of Teheran's reach, diplomatic sources said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report will allow United States Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian and European Union counterparts Mohammad Javad Zarif and Federica Mogherini to announce in Vienna that the deal can enter into force, the sources said.

Mr Zarif was on his way to the Austrian capital on Saturday, Iranian media reported.

Under the July 14 deal, Iran agreed to scale down dramatically key areas of its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from painful sanctions, notably on Teheran's lifeblood oil exports.

These steps, combined with ultra-close IAEA inspections, extend to at least one year - from just a few months previously - how long Iran would need to make one nuclear bomb's worth of fissile material.

Iran has always denied wanting nuclear weapons, saying its activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes such as power generation.

The hard-fought agreement was sealed in Vienna by Mr Kerry, Mr Zarif, Ms Mogherini and the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany after two years of rollercoaster negotiations following the June 2013 election of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The highly complex deal drew a line under a standoff dating back to 2002 marked by several failed diplomatic initiatives, ever-tighter sanctions, defiant nuclear expansion by Iran and threats of military action.

In addition it put Iran and the United States on the road to better relations some 35 years after the Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah, and at a particularly explosive time in the Middle East.

The agreement, heralded as US President Barack Obama's biggest - and some might say only - major foreign policy triumph, has by no means been universally cheered, however.

Mr Obama's Republican opponents charge that it fails to do enough to ensure Iran will never get the bomb, a complaint shared by Israel, Iran's arch foe widely assumed to have nuclear weapons itself.

Sunni Saudi Arabia, Iran's other great regional rival, is also alarmed at the prospect of warmer US-Iran ties and of predominantly Shiite Iran, newly flush with oil revenues, increasing its influence.

Mr Kerry, whose trip to Vienna was announced late on Friday, sought to allay his Saudi counterpart's fears on Thursday in London, telling Adel al-Jubeir that the two nations' "friendship... remains a lynchpin of our efforts in the region".

Already Saudi Arabia and Iran, fighting a proxy war in Yemen and key players in the Syrian conflict, are at daggers drawn following Saudi Arabia's execution of a Shiite cleric in early January and the subsequent ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Iran's imminent return to the oil market has also contributed to the sharp slide in the price of crude to 12-year lows of under US$30 per barrel this week, putting Saudi Arabia's public finances under strain.

The lifting of sanctions on Iran is "going to put 500,000 barrels per day more on the market", said James Williams of WTRG Economics. Some analysts believe US$20 oil is on the horizon.

The deal has more than a decade to run, which is likely to be a bumpy road, experts say, not least if more hardline governments take power in Tehran or Washington.

The two countries are still far from being best friends, as witnessed by Iran's recent capture of 10 US sailors in Iranian waters, although their improved relations did help ensure their swift release.

Iran violated a UN resolution in October when it test-launched a medium-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, a UN panel of experts concluded in a report in December.

A "snapback" mechanism ensures that many of the sanctions can be swiftly reimposed, and a special joint commission is meant to handle any misunderstandings.

"Iran may test the boundaries of the agreement. It is critical that violations do not go unpunished, or the deal could be killed by a thousand paper cuts," said Ms Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association.

"At the same time, punitive actions for violations on both sides should be proportionate, and differentiated from technical missteps, which may occur under such a complex agreement," she told AFP.