RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
In a diplomatic breakthrough, Iran has agreed to temporary limits on its nuclear program. In exchange, the U.S. and its allies have agreed to relax some of their crippling economic sanctions on Iran. The six-month agreement is designed to buy time to negotiate a more lasting deal that would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It's already drawn a skeptical response in Israel and from some lawmakers here at home.
NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now to talk more about this. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, this deal is something President Obama has waited a long time for. How is he talking about it? What's he saying?
HORSLEY: Well, that's right. This is the first real payoff for the strategy that the president has been pushing since he took office, really, even before that, on the campaign trail. Over the last five years, his administration has painstakingly assembled an international coalition against Iran, isolated that country economically, and it's imposed those punishing sanctions, all in an effort to change Iran's calculation and make the leaders there ask themselves how much is a nuclear weapon really worth to us?
It's taken a long time. There were a lot of doubts along the way. There are still a lot of doubts about this strategy. But President Obama said last night he sees at last a diplomatic opening here and the U.S. needs to explore it.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The first step that we've taken today marks the most significant and tangible progress with Iran since I took office. And now we must use the months ahead to pursue a lasting and comprehensive settlement that would resolve an issue that has threatened our security and the security of our allies for decades.
MARTIN: So, Scott, the U.S. and its allies now have six months to negotiate a permanent deal. What happens in the meantime?
HORSLEY: Well, this deal suspends Iran's pursuit of more highly enriched uranium. And it requires that country to dilute or neutralize its existing stockpile that's closest to weapons grade. And that temporary halt is important to the U.S. because a big concern with the diplomatic approach has always been Iran could simply use the talks to buy time while its bomb makers continue to do their work.
This agreement is designed to freeze Iran's progress so at the end of the six months they're no closer to having a weapon. In fact, they should be a little bit further removed. And the deal calls for daily visits by international inspectors to make sure Iran is living up to its bargain.
MARTIN: And in exchange, Iran gets a break from those international sanctions. How much of a break?
HORSLEY: Well, to hear the Obama administration talk about it, it's a pretty small break. Over the course of the next six months, Iran gets an economic benefit worth some six to $7 billion. But the core of the sanctions remains in place and those are costing Iran $5 billion every month just in lost oil sales.
So the sanctions really are hurting Iran's economy. It's contracted by about 5 percent. The country is facing steep inflation. So it is paying a heavy price for pursuing its nuclear program. And Iran's leaders have to be asking themselves if it's worth it.
MARTIN: Not everyone in Washington is on board with this plan though. Some in Congress have argued this is not a time to let up on sanctions. In fact, they'd like to see even tougher sanctions passed.
HORSLEY: That's right. We've already seen some criticism that this deal as too favorable to Iran. But the White House argues, you know, it's not just U.S. sanctions that have hurt Iran but the near total isolation of that country by the international community. And the concern at the White House is that that international coalition could splinter if it were to appear that Iran is willing to bargain and the U.S. and its allies are not.
So with Iran offering this handshake, officials felt the U.S. and its allies had to reach back - albeit carefully. They say if six months from now it turns out Iran is not serious, the sanctions can be ratcheted right back up again.
MARTIN: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.