VIENNA —World leaders converged here Saturday in anticipation of the end of international sanctions against Iran in exchange for significantly curtailing its nuclear program.
The nuclear agreement will take effect when the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies that Iran has met its commitments under the deal it signed last July with six global powers, including the United States.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew from London to Vienna in the early afternoon local time. He went immediately into a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Coburg Palace Hotel, the scene of months-long final negotiations last summer that led to the deal between Iran and the world powers.
Pending implementation of the deal came as U.S. and Iranian officials announced the release of four Americans imprisoned in Iran, in exchange for the release of seven Iranians charged or convicted in the United States of sanctions-related crimes. All of the imprisoned Americans–including Washington Post reporter Jason Reziain–and all but one of the Iranians hold dual nationality.
Senior administration officials here insisted that the nuclear agreement and prisoner releases were not directly tied, but that completion of the terms of the nuclear deal last July had allowed talks about the prisoners to be greatly accelerated. As night fell in Vienna, there was no confirmation that a Swiss aircraft that was to carry the Americans out of Iran had yet taken off.
Iranian, European and U.S. officials have said repeatedly over the past week that IAEA certification and implementation of the agreement was just “days” away. But the delay in what initially was to be an announcement Saturday morning, Vienna time, suggested that some last-minute issues still needed to be ironed out.
Zarif was brimming with optimism when he arrived earlier in the day and met with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
“This is a good day for the Iranian people . . . and for the world,” he told Iranian media. “What is going to happen today is proof . . . that major problems in the world could be tackled through dialogue, not threats, pressures and sanctions.”
Under the agreement, the Vienna-based IAEA is tasked with verifying that Iran has met the terms of the deal — including the mothballing of most of its uranium-enrichment centrifuges, the shipment of enriched-uranium stockpiles out of the country and the disabling its Arak nuclear reactor, capable of yielding plutonium. The IAEA is also charged with monitoring the country’s program for years to come to ensure that Iran is not moving toward nuclear weapons production.
Iran has said that it never intended to build nuclear weapons and that its program is for peaceful energy and medical research purposes.
International sanctions are officially lifted as soon as the IAEA certification is made, giving Iran access to more than $50 billion in long-frozen assets in international banks. At the same time, the United States will issue guidance to banks and businesses to explain what commerce will be allowed. Some U.S. sanctions will remain in effect.
IAEA certification of compliance will bring announcements and speeches by high-level officials from the negotiating parties. A new U.N. resolution codifying the deal will go into effect. White House executive orders and implementation guidance from the U.S. Treasury and the European Union will start the wheels of international business and finance turning.
To the consternation of critics in the United States — including Republican presidential hopefuls who have called it a dangerous sellout by Obama and vowed to dismantle it — the deal is now done.
In the long term, the agreement is a major milestone in the Iranian revolution, with the potential for far-reaching economic, political and cultural ramifications. The end of Iran’s near-total economic isolation could drive more modernization and open the country to moderating outside influences. More money spent at home to upgrade failing infrastructure and jump-start the economy would allow pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani to showcase the sanctions relief he pledged in his 2013 campaign..
U.S. and international opponents, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies see the agreement as a dangerous gift to an aggressive and duplicitous regime, and have warned that Tehran will use the money to increase spending on terrorist groups that serve as its proxies in a fight for regional dominance.
Although Iran has more than $100 billion in available frozen assets — most of it in banks in China, Japan and South Korea — slightly less than half will more or less automatically go to preexisting debts. How the rest is spent will reveal the direction of internal power battles between Iranian hard-liners and pragmatists.
That kind of money is too much to be transferred in one fell swoop. Richard Nephew, a former sanctions chief of the U.S. negotiating team, said the Iranians will likely transfer it out in chunks, and may even leave it in place while they decide how to spend it.
“They’re going to find there are more demands” for the money, about $56 billion, “than they have plans to use it,” he said. “The question is to what degree will they have fights at home about what to do with it.”
The U.S. Treasury Department keeps close track of resources flowing to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful proxy force in the region that is playing a major role in support of besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “I suspect they are going to get an increase in material support” that will “become apparent in the next couple of months,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior Obama adviser on the region.
Another indicator to watch, Ross said, is the selection of candidates for upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran in late February. To appear on the ballot, candidates must be vetted and approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“If it turns out that many of those who are identified with Rouhani and are more pragmatic are permitted to be candidates, that will tell us something,” Ross said. “If that is not the case, it will also tell us something.”
Despite official rejoicing by the negotiating partners, implementation comes at a particularly inauspicious time for Iran and the United States.
Oil is at its lowest price in more than a decade, in part because of expectations Iranian crude will flood the market, and Iran’s currency has declined precipitously. Tehran will be getting far less income than it anticipated when the negotiations took hold in late 2013, making it difficult for the government to deliver the jobs and economic boom Iranians have been told will ensue. Many think it will take years to repair the country’s decrepit energy infrastructure in order for oil to flow at its pre-sanctions rate.
In Washington, the deal is even more contentious politically now than it was when it was signed with Iran six months ago in Vienna by the governments of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and the European Union. Videos of kneeling U.S. sailors detained this week by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy have outraged many in Congress who were already incensed by the agreement. The sailors, whose boat strayed into Iranian waters, were released Wednesday after being held overnight.
U.S. non-nuclear sanctions related to terrorism and other Iranian activities remain in place. Lawmakers have called for additional American restrictions on Iran for test-firing ballistic missiles in October and November in apparent violation of then-existing U.N. sanctions. And since the deal was finalized, Iran has taken a fourth U.S. citizen into custody, fueling anger by critics that Obama has moved ahead while ignoring their fate.
DeYoung reported from Washington.