(USATODAY.com) - In a series of carefully choreographed steps, the United States eased some economic sanctions on Iran Monday after international inspectors confirmed that Tehran had suspended high-level enrichment of uranium at key nuclear facilities.
The United States and its allies have ratcheted up economic sanctions over several years to stop what it charged was Iran's attempt to build nuclear weapons. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
Iran will get around $7 billion in installments over the next six months while all sides negotiate a permanent treaty. The Obama administration has emphasized that sanctions have only been suspended and could be reimposed if Iran should renege on its treaty obligations.
The sequence of events on Monday were spelled out in an interim agreement that went into effect Monday. The deal with Iran was struck in Geneva in November between Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
The European Union also voted to suspend some of the economic sanctions Monday after International Atomic Energy Agency monitors confirmed that Iran had taken steps spelled out under the deal, which was brokered by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
IAEA inspectors on hand in the Natanz facility in central Iran confirmed that enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent had been suspended at the plant by disconnecting cascades of centrifuges, according to Iranian state TV.
They then left to monitor a similar suspension at Fordo, another uranium enrichment site in central Iran.
Under the Geneva deal, Iran agreed to halt its 20 per cent enrichment program -- which is just steps away from bomb-making materials -- but continue enrichment up to 5 percent.
The Iranian news agency said Iran also began converting part of its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium to oxide, which can be used to produce nuclear fuel but is difficult to reconvert for weapons use.
The White House hailed Iran's actions as "an important step forward."
"These actions represent the first time in nearly a decade that Iran has verifiably enacted measures to halt progress on its nuclear program, and roll it back in key respects," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. "Iran has also begun to provide the IAEA with increased transparency into the Iranian nuclear program, through more frequent and intrusive inspections and the expanded provision of information to the IAEA. Taken together, these concrete actions represent an important step forward."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who voted with other EU foreign ministers in Brussels to suspend some of the sanctions, called the deal "an important milestone."
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on his Facebook page that he hoped this first step would "be of positive outcomes for the country and would bring further peace and stability to the region and the world," the IRNA Iranian news agency reported.
In a conference call with reporters, senior Obama administration officials said that with the suspension of sanctions Iran will not necessarily now largely "be open for business," emphasizing that the U.S. would reach out to its counterparts to remind them of the continuing sanctions.
Regarding the desire of some in Congress to impose harsher sanctions, one of the officials said that Iran is starting to implement the steps and that "it would not be a wise time to take" take actions that "we don't need."
These officials insisted on anonymity to discuss a diplomatic matter they were not authorized to talk about by name.
Contributing: Associated Press