The Cable

Deal Reached to Halt Iran's Nuclear Program

GENEVA - The historic nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers early Sunday morning represents the biggest gamble of President Barack Obama's presidency, and the success or failure of that bet will have serious repercussions for the administration's standing on Capitol Hill, Washington's relationships with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, and the national security of the United States itself.

The deal painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations at a luxury hotel here calls for Iran to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb.

In exchange, Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $6 billion. Tehran also won a commitment that the so-called P5+1 nations -- the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain -- wouldn't impose any new sanctions for the next six months. That was an important win for the Iranians since the existing measures have cut its oil exports in half and driven the price of its currency down to a historic low.

The negotiations between the two sides have been going on in stops and starts for nearly a decade, but the actual unveiling of the deal was strangely muted. The text of the agreement itself was signed at roughly 3:30 AM in Geneva's Palais des Nations in a quiet ceremony open to only a small number of reporters and not televised or otherwise broadcast electronically. Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's chief diplomat and one of the prime architects of the deal, didn't participate in the public rollout of the agreement or take any questions from reporters.

President Obama, speaking from the White House, said the deal "halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program" and "cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb." He also stressed that the agreement was an interim measure designed to give negotiators from both sides six months to work towards a broader, permanent nuclear agreement. If a deal couldn't be reached -- or if the United States found evidence that Iran was trying to secretly continue work on its nuclear weapons program -- Obama promised to restore the sanctions that had been lifted and impose harsh new ones.

The White House moved quickly to try to preempt criticism that the deal gave Iran too much.  A senior administration official in Washington said the primary U.S. sanctions against Iran's oil and banking sectors would remain fully intact, which means that Iran would lose roughly $30 billion in oil revenue over the next six months, far more than it stands to gain as part of the agreement.  "Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today," the official said.

With the agreement in place, the administration is now gambling that it can overcome three distinct challenges.

First, the White House has to persuade skeptical lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran during the next six months. That may be a hard sell given the number of lawmakers from both parties who want to increase the sanctions on Iran rather than softening or relieving any of the existing measures. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a close White House ally, has said he's prepared to take up a tough new sanctions bill when the Senate comes back into session next month. The bill would almost certainly pass if it was put to a full vote. Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama was prepared to veto new sanctions legislation, but that's a battle the White House would dearly love to avoid.

Next, the administration faces the tough task of convincing Israel that the deal does enough to constrain Iran's nuclear program that Israel should give the administration more time to work out a permanent pact with Tehran rather than resorting to unilateral military strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was harshly critical of earlier iterations of the nuclear deal and has promised to do whatever is necessary to protect his country. Administration officials said Obama would speak to Netanyahu Sunday to brief him on the details of the deal. One official said in an interview that the White House felt that Netanyahu, no matter how angry he was about the agreement, would reluctantly give the administration six months to test Tehran's intentions.  With the P5+1 countries committed to ongoing negotiations with Iran, the official said that Netanyahu knows any military action would risk rupturing Israel's relationships with the U.S., China and most of Europe. "Bibi will hold his nose, but he'll let us have six months," the official said.

The third and final unknown is what the deal will ultimately mean for American national security.  The agreement imposes an unprecedented number of new restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and, if fully implemented, would make it extraordinarily difficult for Tehran to obtain a bomb. Still, the deal doesn't require Iran to disassemble any of its roughly 19,000 centrifuges or to destroy all of its uranium enrichment equipment. Netanyahu and other critics argue that leaving the core infrastructure of Iran's nuclear program intact means that Tehran could restart its weapons push anytime it wants, particularly if it senses that the West has lost its appetite for further sanctions or the potential use of military force.

Even if the deal succeeds in freezing Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, Washington and Tehran still remain on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war and face lingerng disputes over Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, a network of heavily-armed Shiite militias in Iraq, and Shiite activist groups in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The nuclear deal could clear the way for further pacts down the road devoted specifically to issues like reducing Tehran's support for the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.  For the moment, though, those disputes serve as reminders of just how enormous a bet Obama has made by inking this new nuclear deal with Tehran.  

The Cable

U.S. to Back Privacy Resolution It Knee-Capped

The United States, Great Britain, and its chief intelligence allies, known as the Five Eyes, agreed late Friday to support a Brazilian and German sponsored General Assembly resolution promoting an international right to privacy, but only after thwarting efforts to impose new legal constraints on foreign espionage that could potentially restrain the U.S. National Security Agency, according to diplomats involved in the negotiations.

Last month, Brazil and Germany introduced a U.N. General Assembly resolution that sought to apply the right to privacy, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to online communications. The draft raised concern that mass "extraterritorial" surveillance and interception of communications may constitute a violation of individuals' rights under the terms of the Covenant.

But the United States opposed that measure on the grounds that there was no universal right to privacy, and that governments were only required to observe an individual's privacy rights in their own countries. A confidential State Department paper, containing a series of American "red lines" for the negotiations, called for clarifying any reference to privacy rights and "remove suggestion[s] that such obligations apply extra territorially." The United States secured that concession, and succeeded in watering down other parts of the resolution, stripping out several references to "illegal surveillance" in the draft. "Recall that the USG's [US Government's] collection activities that have been disclosed are lawful collections done in a manner protective of privacy rights," the State Department paper said.

Still, the resolution, which is likely to be adopted in the General Assembly next week, has put the issue of online privacy on the U.N. General Assembly agenda for the first time, assuring that the potential threat that digital espionage poses to individuals' human rights will continue to be debated at the world body, both in the U.N. General Assembly Chamber and at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The resolution "reaffirms the right to privacy" and "affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. It voices concern at "the negative impact the surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights."

The resolution asks the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights  to produce a report for the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council next year that addresses "the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communication and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale."

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But three diplomats involved in the talks confirmed that the U.S. had agreed to join in the consensus supporting the resolution.

Dinah PoKempner, the legal counsel for Human Rights Watch, said earlier this week that the Brazilian and German concessions to the United States and its allies were "regrettable." But she said U.S. backing of the measure marked an important and positive first step.

"Supporting this resolution, and particularly acknowledging that privacy can be violated by global mass surveillance, would help to demonstrate to its allies it actually does feel some obligation to respect the rights of their citizens as well," she wrote in an email. "The U.S. has historically been very strong on many aspects of privacy, though in recent years Europe has taken the lead on protecting personal data. It would be a very positive sign if the US would resume its historic role as a leader in rights protection."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.