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Thursday February 11th, 2016 5:47AM

Obama declares Iran deal 'important first step'

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama declared an interim nuclear deal with Iran an "important first step" that cuts off the Islamic republic's most likely path toward a bomb.

"These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon," Obama said during remarks from the White House late Saturday night.

The president spoke shortly after the U.S. and five international partners agreed to a short-term deal with Iran that is aimed at paving the way for a broader agreement to curb Tehran's disputed nuclear program. Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to halt progress on key elements of its nuclear program in exchange for modest relief from U.S. economic sanctions.

Obama pledged to hold off from imposing new sanctions during the terms of the six-month agreement, a position likely to anger some in Congress who have been pushing for even tougher penalties against Iran.

"If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure," he said.

Obama came into office promising to talk to Iran without preconditions. The U.S. and Iran had broken off diplomatic ties in 1979 after the Islamic revolution and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where dozens of Americans were held hostage for more than a year.

The June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a more moderate-sounding cleric, helped pave the way for a thaw in diplomatic relations with the U.S. and this latest round of nuclear negotiations.

Obama's outreach to Iran has worried Israel and Persian Gulf nations, which fear Iran is using the negotiations as a delay tactic while it continues to pursue a nuclear weapon. The president on Saturday said those nations "have good reason to be skeptical of Iran's intentions." But he said "only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program."
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