November 25, 2013 9:06:44 AM
PARIS -- Sanctions against Iran could be eased as soon as December, France's foreign minister said Monday, after a potentially history-shaping deal that gives Tehran six months to increase access to its nuclear sites in exchange for keeping the central elements of its uranium program.
The deal, announced Sunday, envisages lifting some of the sanctions that have been crippling the country's economy, and put in place over fears that Tehran is using its nuclear program to build atomic arms. Iran denies it wants such weapons.
"A Europe-wide decision is necessary" to ease EU sanctions on Iran, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio. "That's expected in several weeks, for a partial lifting that is targeted, reversible."
The United States and U.N. have separate sanctions.
The agreement reached on Sunday will allow Iran to keep the central elements of its uranium program while stopping its enrichment at a level lower than what is needed for nuclear arms. In addition to a six-month window for Iran to allow more U.N. access to nuclear sites, sanctions will be eased -- notably in the oil, automotive and aviation industries -- though not ended.
The agreement is a first step -- one that Israel has condemned as a "historic" mistake that effectively accepts Iran as a threshold nuclear weapons state.
Israel has found common cause with Saudi Arabia, which shares concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran and Tehran's growing regional influence.
On his return to Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told state television that the country was prepared for quick follow-up negotiations to keep the deal on track.
"We are ready to begin the final stage of nuclear agreement from tomorrow," said Zarif, who was greeted by hundreds of cheering students late Sunday.
There has been no noticeable opposition to the deal in Tehran beyond a handful of requests for clarification from lawmakers, in contrast to the United States where many members of Congress said they were skeptical that Iran would stick to the agreement.
Iran insists that trying to block enrichment was a dead end. For Iran's leaders, self-sufficiency over the full scope of its nuclear efforts -- from uranium mines to the centrifuges used in enrichment -- is a source of national pride and a pillar of its self-proclaimed status as a technological beacon for the Islamic world.
In the end, Iran agreed to cap its enrichment level to a maximum of 5 percent, which is well below the 90 percent threshold needed for a warhead. Iran also pledged to "neutralize" its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium -- the highest level acknowledged by Tehran -- by either diluting its strength or converting it to fuel for its research reactors, which produced isotopes for medical treatments and other civilian uses.
In return, Iran got a rollback in some sanctions -- a total package estimated by the White House at $7 billion back into the Iranian economy -- but the main pressures remain on Iran's oil exports and its blacklist from international banking networks during the first steps of the pact over the next six months.
The talks were also the culmination of a painstaking process of old-school contacts and secret sessions between Iranian and American envoys that began even before the surprise election of Iran's moderate-leaning President Hassan Rouhani last June.
The shadow dialogue, mediated by mutual ally Oman, was so sensitive that it was kept from even close allies, such as negotiating partners at the nuclear talks, until two months ago, according to details obtained by The Associated Press and later confirmed by senior administration officials. The pace of the back-channel contacts picked up after Rouhani officially took office in August, promising a "new era" in relations with the West.