03282014Headline:

Iran Cuts Uranium Enrichment

Iran on Monday halted production of 20 percent enriched uranium, bringing into force an interim deal between Tehran and world powers on its disputed nuclear programme.

“In line with the implementation of the Geneva joint plan of action, Iran suspended the production of 20 percent enriched uranium in the presence of UN nuclear watchdog inspectors at Natanz and Fordo sites,” Mohammad Amiri, director general for safeguards at Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, told the official IRNA news agency.

UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the freeze had begun, diplomats said in Vienna, headquarters of the watchdog.

“It’s all fine, all their requirements have been fulfilled,” one envoy to the IAEA said in comments echoed by other diplomats. The IAEA declined to comment.

The suspension starts the clock on negotiating a trickier long-term accord aimed at ending the Iran nuclear standoff and averting war once and for all, a process threatened however by possible new US sanctions.

On day one, Iran has to halt the enrichment of uranium to medium levels — close to weapons-grade — and to begin diluting half of its stockpile of this material.

Iran has agreed to modify its Arak heavy water reactor so that it cannot produce weapons-grade pluto …

If the IAEA gives the thumbs-up, in Brussels EU foreign ministers will adopt legislation loosening sanctions on items like auto parts and gold, followed later in the day by a similar move in Washington.

Over the next six months Iran will also not install or switch on new nuclear machines and will grant the IAEA more access, including daily visits to the Fordo and Natanz enrichment facilities.

The total sanctions relief — staggered over the six months — is worth some $6-7 billion, including $4.2 billion in frozen overseas assets. The first $550 million instalment is due February 1.

But the core sanctions will still bite. Over the next half-year alone, Iran will miss out on $30 billion in oil revenues, the White House says. Most of Iran’s $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings remains off-limits.

According to Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the powers will want Iran to slash the number of centrifuges to 3,000-4,000 from the current 19,000.

In addition Iran will have to mothball Fordo; change the Arak reactor under construction so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium; and cut the stockpile of low-enriched uranium to less than a bomb’s worth, Fitzpatrick told AFP.

This, coupled with tighter inspections, would not remove entirely Iran’s capability to make nuclear weapons — it denies this is its aim — but it would make it considerably more difficult. According to US President Barack Obama it would be “impossible”.

But getting November’s interim deal was hard enough — reportedly helped by secret US-Iran talks in Oman and elsewhere — and neither the powers nor Iran are under any illusions about the difficulty of securing a long-term agreement.

Obama said in December he saw the chances at “50-50″ — a “highly optimistic” assessment, Fitzpatrick believes — while Iranian counterpart, the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani, has warned it will be a “long journey”.

Even if they do get a deal, the terms may be too tough for hardliners in Iran and too lax for their opposite numbers in the United States, and for Iran’s arch enemy Israel, the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power.

Iran’s conservative newspapers on Monday came out strongly against the implementation of the deal.

Under the headline, “Nuclear holocaust’, Vatan-e Emrooz paper said that the Geneva deal will see most of the country’s nuclear activities come to a halt.

Threatening to scupper the process is a push by US lawmakers — including some from Obama’s own party — to slap new sanctions on the Islamic republic, even though this would contravene the November deal.

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