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Lapse in launch of nukes deal gives Iran an edge, some say

WASHINGTON (JTA) — There’s the six-month interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that trades some sanctions relief for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. And then there’s the interim before the interim begins.

Little noticed in the wake of the historic pact reached last month by Iran and the major powers is the fact that technically, the deal is not yet underway. A commission of experts from the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain, China and France, working with Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, first must work out the technical details before the deal officially goes into effect.

The commission is not scheduled to meet until January. And even then it’s not clear how long it might take to reach an agreement.

“Obviously, once that’s — those technical discussions are worked through, I guess the clock would start,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a news briefing on Nov. 27.

Under the terms of the deal reached in Geneva last month, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium to 5 percent, freeze most of its centrifuges and halt construction on its plutonium reactor. In exchange it would receive sanctions relief totaling approximately $7 billion.

President Obama strongly supported the deal, which was intended to provide a six-month window in which to conclude a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Critics, foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saw the agreement as a historic blunder, arguing that it would advance Iran toward the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Some critics say the uncertainty over when the deal kicks in also works in Iran’s favor.

“Every day that goes by where Iran is not bound to roll back its nuclear program but still can benefit from a shift in the market psychology from fear to greed puts money in the regime’s pocket without doing anything to address their growing nuclear weapons capacity,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has helped shape many of the tough sanctions passed in recent years by Congress.

Dubowitz’s colleague, Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Jonathan Schanzer, on Tuesday tweeted links to Arab media reports that some European oil companies already are considering new business with Iran. The French oil giant Total reportedly said last month that it would resume dealings with Iran if sanctions are revoked.

Ron Dermer, the new Israeli envoy to Washington, also has cast the argument as one of momentum. In briefings to members of Congress and Jewish groups, Dermer has argued that before the deal, tough sanctions and the likelihood of more to come had Iran on the ropes. With a deal in place, however, the momentum could reverse direction — companies that once feared being cut off from the U.S. economy might consider deals with Iran.

Obama administration officials adamantly deny the scenario. The principal sanctions targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors will stay in place even during the interim deal, they say.

“Right now our sanctions remain in place,” John Sullivan, spokesman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury section that monitors sanctions compliance, told JTA. “More guidance on the relief package will be forthcoming from Treasury and our interagency partners.

“What we agreed to is clear and limited. We will continue to enforce our sanctions aggressively.”

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the U.S. defense establishment, said that even those nations and companies eager for sanctions relief would not bust sanctions now for fear of alienating the United States. India and China, he said, would risk U.S. waivers granted them on some dealings with Iran should they be seen as planning new business with the country.

“Most countries are still wary of having normal energy ties with Iran,” he said.

Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the congressionally funded Wilson Center, acknowledged that the momentum argument has merit. But he noted that provisions in the deal that would resume sanctions should Iran not comply ultimately are enough to scare companies away from resuming business with the country.

“To say that it will lead to Total resuming contracts with Iran is wrong,” Adler said. “You can be concerned you’re changing from a tightening mode to a lightening mode, but the deal is structured in such a way that all the sanctions are reversible and the money they’re getting is a drop in the bucket.”