The Obama administration began implementing its landmark nuclear agreement with Iran with an eye toward lifting expansive sanctions imposed on Tehran in the past decade.
Concerns from opponents of the deal continued to grow, however, as senior administration officials during the weekend played down the importance of a United Nations probe into whether Tehran has attempted to secretly develop the technologies needed to build atomic weapons.
The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is committed under the deal to release a report by year-end about the status of Iran’s alleged weaponization work. U.S. officials over the weekend said the IAEA report would have no bearing on moves by the international community to lift sanctions.
“That final assessment, which the IAEA is aiming to complete by December 15th, is not a prerequisite for implementation day,” a senior U.S. official said Saturday. “We are not in a position to evaluate the quality…of the data. That is between Iran and the IAEA.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials had previously said sanctions wouldn’t be lifted unless Iran substantively cooperated with the U.N. probe.
The shifting U.S. position is stoking criticism from Republicans, who say the White House is essentially agreeing to whitewash the weaponization issue. They also charged Iran with growing more belligerent since the July nuclear agreement, with Tehran testing a ballistic missile this month and convicting a Washington Post journalist of espionage.
“In a key test of its commitment to the nuclear agreement, Iran has given minimum cooperation to international inspectors attempting to determine the extent of Iran’s past bomb work,” said Rep. Ed Royce chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “If this is what the last 90 days look like, the next few years look like a disaster.”
President Barack Obama said that Sunday marked an important milestone toward preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and ensuring its nuclear program is peaceful. He said the U.S. will closely monitor Iran’s adherence to the commitments it made in Vienna.
“We, together with our partners, must now focus on the critical work of fully implementing this comprehensive resolution that addresses our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.
Steps announced Sunday by the U.S. and its negotiating partners to move ahead on what has come to be known as “adoption day” are intended to show a readiness for sanctions relief if Iran begins scaling back its nuclear infrastructure.
That relief will only begin on “implementation day,” when the IAEA certifies Iran has lived up to its commitments to curb its nuclear program.
Mr. Kerry said in a statement Sunday that adopting the deal marks “a critical first step in the process of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively for peaceful purposes.”
He said the pact, if fully implemented, “will bring unprecedented insight and accountability to Iran’s nuclear program forever,” adding that he is mindful of “how much further we have to go in seeing that this deal is fully implemented.”
The U.S. put forward the necessary paperwork so that when Iran is found to be meeting its commitments as spelled out in the deal, sanctions can be lifted.
For Iran, Sunday marks the beginning of a complex process to dismantle parts of its nuclear program, including decommissioning nearly 15,000 centrifuges, converting its Arak heavy-water reactor so that it will produce less plutonium and reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium 98%. U.S. officials expect it will take about six months.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told Iranian state television Sunday that the country would begin taking its next steps under the deal—including reducing the number of uranium centrifuges in operation, and removing the reactor core at the Arak facility—in short order.
The country would start honoring its obligations as soon as President Hassan Rouhani gives the order, Mr. Salehi said, adding that he expected the go-ahead by the end of the week.
While outside Western officials have suggested it will take Iran several months to carry out these steps, Mr. Salehi said Iran would make efforts to complete them within two months.
If the U.S. and other world powers involved in the deal don’t honor their obligations and the deal falls apart, he said, Iran could reinstall the centrifuges within seven to eight months.
Building a new reactor core at Arak would take at least two years, he said.