TEHRAN – Iran on Monday unplugged banks of centrifuges involved in its most sensitive uranium enrichment work, prompting the United States and European Union to partially lift economic sanctions as a landmark deal aimed at easing concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program went into effect.
The mutual actions — curbing atomic work in exchange for some sanctions relief — start a six-month clock for Tehran and the world powers to negotiate a final accord that the Obama administration and its European allies say will be intended to ensure Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon.
In the meantime, the interim deal puts limits on Iran’s program — though it continues low levels of uranium enrichment. Tehran denies its nuclear program is intended to produce a bomb.
The payoff to Iran is an injection of billions of dollars into its crippled economy over the next six months from the suspension of some sanctions — though other sanctions remain in place.
In part a reflection of a thaw between Washington and Tehran, the moves coincidentally occurred on the 33rd anniversary of the end of the Iran hostage crisis.
The holding of 52 Americans for 444 days by radical Iranian students that ended Jan. 20, 1981, was followed by more than three decades of U.S.-Iranian enmity that only began to ease last year with signs that Iran was ready to meet U.S. demands and scale back its nuclear activities.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the deal “an important milestone” — but not the ultimate goal.
“It’s important that other sanctions are maintained and the pressure is maintained for a comprehensive and final settlement on the Iranian nuclear issue,” Hague said.
The Europeans are aiming to start negotiations on a final deal in February, though no date or venue has been agreed on yet. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Saturday that Tehran is ready to enter talks as soon as the interim deal goes into force.
In the first step of the interim accord, Iranian state TV said authorities disconnected cascades of centrifuges producing 20 percent enriched uranium at the Natanz facility in central Iran. The broadcast said international inspectors were on hand to witness the stoppage before leaving to monitor suspension of enrichment at Fordo, another site in central Iran.
Also Monday, Iran started to convert part of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to oxide, which can be used to produce nuclear fuel but is difficult to reconvert for weapons use, the official IRNA news agency said.
After receiving independent confirmation of the steps from the United Nations watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, EU foreign ministers in Brussels approved the partial sanctions suspension.
The White House also announced the suspension of some American sanctions on Iran.
“These actions represent the first time in nearly a decade that Iran has verifiably enacted measures to halt progress on its nuclear program, and roll it back in key respects,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
He said Iran is also providing U.N. inspectors with increased transparency, including more frequent and intrusive inspections. “Taken together, these concrete actions represent an important step forward,” he said.
Under the deal reached in November in Geneva, Iran agreed to halt its 20 percent enrichment program but continue enrichment up to 5 percent.
Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi said his country has a total of 196 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium and will convert half of it to oxide over a period of six months. The remaining half will be diluted to a level below 5 percent level within three months.
Uranium enriched to a high degree — above 90 percent — can be used to build a nuclear warhead. Enriched below 5 percent, it can power an electricity-generating reactor, and at 20 percent it can power reactors used to produce medical isotopes. The enrichment is done by spinning the uranium in a series of centrifuges.
Iran will also refrain from commissioning its under-construction 40-megawatt heavy water reactor in Arak, central Iran. That reactor can produce plutonium, another route to building a warhead.
Under the deal, the number of IAEA inspectors in Iran will “roughly double,” said Tero Varjoranta, an IAEA deputy director general. That will increase the agency’s presence on the ground to a maximum of eight inspectors in Iran at any time.
IAEA inspectors will have daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities, a senior diplomat familiar with details of the implementation plan said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details.
In exchange for the nuclear curbs, Iran receives a halt to new sanctions and easing of some existing sanctions. Measures targeting petrochemical products, gold and other precious metals, the auto industry, passenger plane parts and services will be lifted immediately.
The Geneva deal allows Iran to continue exporting crude oil in its current level, which is reported to be about 1 million barrels a day.
Senior U.S. administration officials have put the total relief figure at some $7 billion of an estimated $100 billion in Iranian assets in foreign banks. Iran is to receive the first $550 million installment of $4.2 billion of its assets blocked overseas on Feb. 1.
Iran’s hardliners have called the deal a “poisoned chalice,” highlighting the difficult task President Hasan Rouhani faces in selling the accord to skeptics.
Hardline media denounced the bargain. The Vatan-e-Emrooz daily printed in black Monday instead of its usual colors, a sign of sorrow and mourning. It declared the deal a “nuclear Holocaust” and called it a gift to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
“Today, Netanyahu is the happiest person in the world,” it said.
However, the Israeli prime minister has made the opposite argument: He says the deal gives Iran too much for too few concessions.