Iran Nuclear Deal: Milestone in Sight, Officials Say

PHOTO: Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the last working session of nuclear negotiations on July 14, 2015 in Vienna, Austria.PlayThomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
WATCH A Brief History of US-Iran Relations

The United States and Iran are within days, possibly even hours, of completing the next critical phase of the landmark international nuclear deal, State Department officials say, a step known as “Implementation Day.”

That’s when Iran can verify with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has removed the core from its heavy-water nuclear reactor in Arak and filled it with concrete. In exchange for a series of nuclear reductions, many economic sanctions will be immediately suspended and over $100 billion in Iranian assets will be unfrozen and returned to Iranian hands.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this week that with the completion of this phase, the United States will have met its target to guarantee extending the time it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon to at least one year.

Kerry is in London now waiting for IAEA verification, after which he will likely participate in a meeting with the negotiating parties to formally mark the occasion.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest spoke about the steps Iran has taken to curb its nuclear program at the daily briefing today. “They shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country over the holidays,” Earnest said, referencing Iran’s stockpile of fissile material.

“We've actually seen Iran dismantle so much of their nuclear architecture that we have blocked every pathway they have to building a nuclear weapon,” he added. “That's a substantial accomplishment.”

But at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, the candidates verbally trashed the nuclear deal, many of them linking it to the detention of 10 U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, which the Iranians recorded and broadcast on television.

Front-runner Donald Trump said the only reason the United States was able to get those sailors back was because Iran wanted to collect its frozen assets.

“Watching the humiliation of our young ten sailors, sitting on the floor with their knees in a begging position, their hands up, and Iranian wise guys having guns to their heads – it was a terrible sight,” Trump said. “A terrible sight. And the only reason we got them back is because we owed them with a stupid deal, $150 billion.”

The administration said that without the nuclear negotiation process, there would not have been that direct diplomatic channel between Secretary Kerry and Iranian Fotreign Minister Javad Zarif, which it says led to the sailors’ quick release.