As Iran digs in, US says no to immediate sanctions relief

State Department says penalties will only be eased once nuclear breakout time increased to one year, after Tehran indicates issue could torpedo deal

John Kerry speaking Thursday April 9, 2015. (photo credit: US State Department)
John Kerry speaking Thursday April 9, 2015. (photo credit: US State Department)

Any sanctions relief for Iran as part of a landmark nuclear accord will only come once curbs on enrichment are verified, the US State Department said Thursday, rebuffing demands in Tehran for an immediate lifting of the punishing restrictions.

“Sanctions will be suspended in a phased manner upon verification that Iran has met specific commitments under a finalized joint comprehensive plan of action,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters in Washington.

“The process of sanctions suspension or relief will only begin after Iran has completed its major nuclear steps and the breakout time has been increased to at least a year,” he said.

“That’s consistent with what we said over the last week or so, and that was agreed upon by all the parties in Lausanne,” Rathke added, referring the Swiss city where the framework agreement was reached last week.

“We’re not going to respond to every public statement made by Iranian officials or negotiate in public,” Rathke said.

Earlier in the day, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani repeated a demand that world powers lift sanctions the day a final accord is signed, indicating the issue could be a deal breaker.

“We will not sign any agreement unless all economic sanctions are totally lifted on the first day of the implementation of the deal,” Rouhani said.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei said Thursday that the punitive “sanctions should be lifted completely, on the very day of the deal” — something that has not been agreed upon.

He cautioned that the six world powers are “not to be trusted” and may try “to limit Iran” in further talks.

And he urged Iranian negotiators not to accept any “unconventional inspections” of Iran’s nuclear facilities, stressing that the inspection of military facilities would not be permitted.

Iran and the six powers agreed last week on a framework deal that is meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear activities while granting it quick access to bank accounts, oil markets and financial assets blocked by international sanctions.

But the deal as detailed by the US does not include the immediate lifting of sanctions. Instead, it says sanctions put in place over Iran’s nuclear program will be suspended once international monitors verify that Tehran is abiding by the limitations spelled out in the agreement.

The pace at which the sanctions will be lifted is one of the many outstanding issues that still has to be agreed in the final accord.

Western governments, which have imposed their own sanctions over and above those adopted by the United Nations, have been pushing for it to happen only gradually.

“In return for Iran’s future cooperation, we and our international partners will provide relief in phases from the sanctions that have impacted Iran’s economy,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said last week.

President Barack Obama also said that the final deal will include provisions to “snap back” sanctions if the world finds out that Iran is not abiding by the terms of the agreement.

But Israel has expressed concern over how quickly the sanctions will be lifted, and questioned whether the “snap back” mechanism is feasible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office tweeted a series of graphics over the past few days outlining Israel’s main questions regarding the deal. One of those was: “Are sanctions being removed in phases, as the P5+1 claims, or all at once, as Iran claims?”

Israel is concerned that once removed, the sanctions — which took years to set into place — will be hard to restore.

Kerry on Wednesday maintained there was “an automatic process” to reinstate sanctions, if need be.

If Iran violates the terms of the agreement “then the sanctions can, and will, come back. For a certain number of years that will happen automatically, but I can assure you that if Iran were then to suddenly move to try to advance this program beyond what would be normal for a peaceful nuclear power, the whole world will respond just as we have now and sanctions would be re-imposed,” Kerry told PBS’s NewsHour.

The sticking point highlights the lengths negotiators still have to go before reaching a full accord by a self-imposed June 30 deadline.

In his first comments on last week’s deal, hamenei told a gathering of religious poets on Thursday that he “is neither for nor against” the deal, saying the agreement was only the framework of a final deal and not the accord itself.

“Nothing has been done yet,” he said.

“What has happened so far neither guarantees a deal… nor does it guarantee the content of a deal,” said Khamenei, who has final say on all Iranian policy decisions. “It doesn’t even guarantee the talks will go on until the end and will lead to a deal.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Khamenei’s comments proved that there was still a large amount of work before the sides come together.

“Subjects still remain that we aren’t agreed on, notably on economic sanctions, and the Supreme Leader has made statements that show there is still a lot of work to be done,” Fabius told lawmakers, according to Reuters.

Under the deal, Iran is expected to curb its enrichment activities while leaving some 6,000 centrifuges — about 1/3rd of its current stock — spinning, and open itself up to a strict international monitoring regime.

Iran has repeatedly stonewalled the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency from fully investigating the scope of its nuclear ambitions. However, according to Kerry, that will change under the terms of any June agreement, which would include “a very robust inspection system.”

Earlier Wednesday, the Iranian defense minister made clear that international inspectors would not be granted access to the state’s military sites under the agreement.

AFP contributed to this report

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