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”.
On Monday, I spoke with U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes about Iran's enrichment after a potential permanent deal, his reaction to Israel's criticism, and when sanctions will be lifted, which he said could start "within the coming weeks."
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.
And Iran agrees to halt work on the heavy water Arak plant. Experts fear this could be used to re-process plutonium and provide a second route to a nuclear weapon.
Experts say Israel most fears fuel being introduced into the Arak plant, at which point bombing it would be massively dangerous due to the resulting nuclear fallout.
Indeed, my interview with hawkish Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, left no doubt that Israel would take military action to strike Arak before it comes fully on line.
Arak was a main sticking point in the interim deal just signed, and it will be just as tough an issue under any final deal, as intelligence sources tell me Arak must be turned from a heavy water plant to a light water reactor, which does not make weapons-grade plutonium.
President Rouhani has made it very clear that he wants a different path forward for Iran. And it’s not just about the nuclear program. He told me he wants an Iran of moderation, not extremism, and to achieve better relations with the West. And that is what the Iranian people want.
The deal is not built on blind faith; it is “trust but verify.”
The IAEA will be monitoring all aspects of the interim deal, and just before it was struck, the agency’s Director General Yukiya Amano told me Iran’s nuclear program has not been expanded for the past three months. He told me he noticed a shift in political will since Rouhani’s election and a stepped-up agreement on cooperation with the IAEA.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio today that "Iran is committed to giving up the prospect of nuclear weapons; it's perfectly clear." He emphasized that the limited sanctions relief, which could start next month, was completely reversible.
While the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the deal calling it “a historic mistake,” surprisingly, Saudia Arabia, which is in a Sunni-Shiite proxy war with Iran for influence in that part of the world, on Monday cautiously welcomed the deal, saying that if there were “good intentions” it could be a first step towards a comprehensive solution, according to AFP.
This is a big change from its previous public stance against any lessening of pressure against Iran.
While Israel wants Iran to totally surrender its nuclear program, and any enrichment capability, no-one at the negotiating table believes that to be a realistic or likely outcome, since it has not happened yet after punishing years-long sanctions.
The conclusion therefore is that either a full-scale war, or a negotiated settlement are the only options.
The Obama Administration has demonstrated with its refusal to intervene in Syria, that it has no intention of committing to another Middle Eastern war.
Israel could conduct some unilateral punishing strikes but those would not end Iran’s nuclear program.
All that’s left is a negotiated settlement – which will necessitate even more painful concessions on all sides.
UPDATED (10:20pm GMT): This post was updated to include a link to Amanpour's interview with Ben Rhodes.