Iran, 6 world powers clinch breakthrough nuclear deal

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, third from left, delivers a statement during a ceremony next to, from left, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the United Nations in Geneva on Sunday, Nov. 24.

United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia reached a breakthrough agreement with Iran to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

GENEVA — Iran and six world powers reached a breakthrough agreement early on Sunday to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, in a first step towards resolving a dangerous decade-old standoff.

The deal between the Islamic state and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia was nailed down after more than four days of negotiations.

Iran nuclear pact: Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva.Reuters Photo: Denis Balibouse

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after a ceremony at the United Nations in Geneva on Saturday, Nov. 24.

Addressing the nation late Saturday night, President Barack Obama said the deal was an "important first step" toward a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear program.

Related: A look at US-Iran ties leading up to nuclear pact

Obama said that if Iran did not meet its commitments during a six-month period, the U.S. would turn off sanctions relief and "ratchet up the pressure."

Obama said Iran could not use its next-generation centrifuges under the deal and that the substantial limitations under the agreement "cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb."

With Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid warning that the Senate will seek additional sanctions on Iran, Obama said his administration would consult closely with Congress, but "now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions."

Iran will get access to $4.2 billion in foreign exchange as part of the accord, a Western diplomat said. No other details of the agreement were immediately available.

Speaking after the pact was struck, Secretary of State John Kerry said the agreement would make it harder for Iran to make a dash to build a nuclear weapon and would make Israel and other U.S. allies safer.

Kerry and foreign ministers of the five other world powers joined the negotiations with Iran early on Saturday as the two sides appeared to be edging closer to a long-sought preliminary agreement.

The talks were aimed at finding a package of confidence-building steps to ease decades of tensions and banish the spectre of a Middle East war over Tehran's nuclear aspirations.

The Western powers' goal had been to cap Iran's nuclear energy programme, which has a history of evading U.N. inspections and investigations, to remove any risk of Tehran covertly refining uranium to a level suitable for bombs.

Tehran denies it would ever "weaponise" enrichment.

Iran nuclear pact: President Barack Obama makes a statement at the White House late Saturday, Nov. 23.Reuters Photo: Joshua Roberts

President Barack Obama makes a statement on an agreement reached with Iran on its nuclear program at the White House in Washington late Saturday, Nov. 23.

The draft deal that had been under discussion in Geneva would see Iran suspend its higher-grade uranium enrichment in exchange for the release of billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts, and renewed trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.

Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants - Iran's stated goal - but also provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb if refined much further.

Diplomacy was stepped up after the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iranian president in June, replacing bellicose nationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani aims to mend fences with big powers and get sanctions lifted. He obtained crucial public backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keeping powerful hardline critics at bay.

Related: Iran nuclear deal Q&A

On a Twitter account widely recognised as representing Rouhani, a message said after the agreement was announced, "Iranian people's vote for moderation & constructive engagement + tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons."

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is trying covertly to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

Israel says the deal being offered would give Iran more time to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told local media in Moscow that Iran was essentially given an "unbelievable Christmas present - the capacity to maintain this (nuclear) breakout capability for practically no concessions at all".

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Stephanie Nebehay, Fredrik Dahl, John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Louis Charbonneau, Katya Golubkova, Isabel Coles; writing by Fredrik Dahl.

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