By Christiane Amanpour, CNN
When the deal between Iran and the major world powers was announced in Geneva, Iranian reporters greeted Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with cheers at his press conference, and Iranians gave him and his team a hero’s welcome when they landed back home in Tehran. Such is the desire to get past this decades long crisis.
Many are cautiously hailing the six-month interim accord – which sees Iran freeze and rollback significant elements of its nuclear program in return for relatively modest and reversible U.S. sanctions relief.
One senior Western intelligence official describes it as significant in delaying Iran’s program and pushing back its so-called breakout ability towards a nuclear weapon.
Yet the official predicts a much more difficult set of negotiations ahead, which are aimed at finally settling Iran’s nuclear parameters as a limited and entirely peaceful program, in return for a total lifting of sanctions. This will require each side giving up much more than they have done this weekend in Geneva.
In the meantime the Obama Administration has a tough sales job ahead persuading Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the merits of this approach, and to stop him slamming this diplomacy as a “historic mistake”.
The deal is not “historic,” as some have said. In 2003, under the leadership of reform President Mohammad Khatami, Iran completely froze its nuclear program for about two years. Hassan Rouhani, now President, was then Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
So why was a deal not struck earlier?
Well for starters the George W. Bush Administration rejected an offer from Khatami to negotiate a final accord, and then the much-reviled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President. He immediately struck a highly combative tone, making the idea of negotiations all but impossible, along with his anti-Israel rhetoric and his anti-Semitic views.
It was Rouhani’s election that made negotiations possible – that and the crippling U.S., European and U.N. sanctions regime that has been ratcheted up over the past decade.
President Rouhani has done what many experts thought was impossible: get the crucial support for negotiations from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, parliament, the press, and even the powerful Revolutionary Guard for now.
He told me as much when I interviewed him in September. That is something the previous reformist President Khatami never had back in 2003-05.
To those who say sanctions should not have been eased now while Iran is on the ropes, experts counter that while they have really hurt the Iranian economy, and the Iranian people, they have not caused Iran to “cry uncle” and abandon its nuclear program.
Indeed as Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told me in that regard, decades of sanctions amounted to a failed policy: “Instead of 160 centrifuges that were spinning 10 years ago or eight years ago,” Zarif told me in an interview, “today we have 19,000 centrifuges. So that is what sanctions and pressures and intimidation has brought.”
The same point was echoed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after the interim deal was struck in Geneva this weekend.
Details of the current deal see Iran getting about $7 billion in relief over the six-month time frame, through the ability to start exporting things like oil, precious metals, and cars.
That is a fraction of the $80 billion Iran has lost in oil revenue alone since 2012, and the $100 billion in foreign bank accounts that will remain inaccessible to Iran, according to the White House. The core of the toughest ever sanctions regime stays in place.
Iran agreed to either dilute its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to 5% or convert it to oxide, which makes it even more difficult to use in a nuclear weapon. Iran will be able to continue enriching up to the 5% level, but only if it does not increase its stockpile.