by Jasmin Ramsey

via IPS News

Geneva — A momentous agreement over Iran’s nuclear program was officially announced shortly after 3:00am by Iranian and French diplomats leaving the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel here on Nov. 24 following more than 4 days of grueling talks.

The deal occurred after years of negotiations with Iran but only 3.5 months after the inauguration of Iran’s moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, who has already presided over several historic foreign policy milestones.

“We just finished many days of hard work,” said Iran’s lead negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the night’s first press conference shortly after signing a 4-page agreement with his P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) counterparts at the Palais des Nations.

“It was work to address an issue that has taken all of us a long time to create and now we are in the process of moving forward the resolution based on mutual respect and equal footing,” said the English-speaking veteran diplomat who has enjoyed consistent support from Iranians and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei since talks resumed in October.

“While today’s announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal,” President Barack Obama said in a late night statement from the White House.

In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry — who praised Zarif’s role in the talks and Tehran’s decision to “come to the table”, which he credited to the very sanctions Iran has vehemently dismissed as a motivator — emphasized to reporters shortly after Zarif’s presser that the first-step agreement, which is aimed at reaching a final, comprehensive solution, includes significant limits on Iran’s nuclear program and addresses the international community’s concerns.

Reciprocal accord

“All sides would gain [from this deal], except those few who believe that it’s feasible to expect that Iran could be sanctioned enough to give up enrichment entirely,” George Perkovich, a nuclear non-proliferation and strategy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told IPS.

“Since I do not think that is feasible, and that even military strikes on Iran would not make Iran give up enrichment entirely, then I think all sides gain,” said the Iran-focused expert.

Under the 6-month phase of the deal Iran is expected to halt uranium enrichment above 5%; convert its existing stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium to fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor or dilute it to 5% grade; halt “further advances of its activities” at its Natanz and Fordow Fuel Enrichment facilities and at its Arak reactor; and implement further, advanced monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In return, ongoing efforts to cripple Iran’s oil revenue will be paused; Iran will be granted access to 4.2 billion dollars of oil revenues held in frozen accounts abroad, US and EU sanctions on Iranian petrochemical exports, gold and precious metals and associated services will be suspended; Iran will receive relief from US sanctions on its auto industry as well as spare parts and repairs for its aviation industry; no further UN, EU or US sanctions will be issued; and a channel will be established to better facilitate humanitarian trade.

But any gains would be “provisional,” cautioned Mr. Perkovich, adding that “the ultimate measure will be in a final agreement.”

US, Iran emphasize interpretations

Like many Iranians, Maryam Askari, a 38-year old Tehran-based researcher, stayed awake as long as she could to hear news of the negotiations results.

“Many people are doing the same, even housewives — even a servant in my friend’s house asked her about the results of the negotiations,” Ms. Askari told IPS shortly before the deal was announced.

Askari added that she wants a deal that reduces tensions with Western countries, lessens pressure on Iran’s dilapidated economy with meaningful sanctions relief and recognizes what she considers Iran’s right to peacefully enrich uranium as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“I am looking for a fair deal,” said Ms. Askari.

But what Iran considers its “inalienable right” to enrich uranium — something it has been emphasizing for years — was addressed differently by the US and Iranian representatives here.

Mr. Zarif forcefully insisted that Iran would not only continue enriching uranium — which it argues is rightful according to the NPT — he also referenced “two distinct places” in the agreement that have “a very clear reference to the fact that the Iranian enrichment program will continue and will be a part of any agreement now and in the future.”

But Mr. Kerry reiterated that the US does not recognize any country’s right to uranium enrichment.

“This first step…does not say that Iran has a right to enrichment, no matter what interpretation the Prime Minister made, it is not in this document and there is no right to enrich within the four corners of the NPT,” responded Mr. Kerry.

He added that as per the signed text “it can only be by mutual agreement that enrichment might or might not be able to be decided on in the course of negotiations.”

Early criticism and relief

“We can expect a strong amount of pushback from critics in the US and Israel, and we’ll have to see how hardliners in Iran react,” Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, told IPS.

Though Mr. Kerry stressed that this agreement will bring security to the region and make US ally Israel “safer”, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu today called the deal reached in Geneva “a historic mistake”.

Key members of the US Congress also criticized the deal shortly after it was announced.

“Unless the agreement requires dismantling of the Iranian centrifuges, we really haven’t gained anything,” tweeted the hawkish Republican Senator Lindsay Graham.

“You’re going to see a bipartisan effort that enrichment is not in the final agreement,” said Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Fox News Sunday.

In his speech, Mr. Kerry said he looked forward to working with Congress in upcoming discussions over the deal but also acknowledged a Presidential “possibility of a veto” in an apparent reference to Congress trying to pass more sanctions on Iran during this phase of the deal.

Perhaps in some acknowledgement of this challenge ahead, he also said: “The next phase, let me be clear, will be even more difficult, and we need to be honest about it. But it will also be even more consequential.”

At least Iran’s team has returned to much praise from Iranians who have been expressing their joy since news of the deal broke through interviews with IPS and various illegal social media networks in Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also expressed his blessing for the results described by the negotiators through a Tweet and a letter addressed to President Rouhani.

“The content of the agreement will be closely examined, but generally speaking, the mere fact of an agreement has lead to a sigh of relief for most Iranians,” Farideh Farhi, an independent scholar at the University of Hawaii who has been in Iran for the last several months, told IPS.

“It signals a desire for de-escalation from all sides, away from a troubling dynamic that many feared would not only mean more economic hardship but also eventually war,” she said.

Photo: Representatives from Iran and 6 world powers sign a nuclear deal in Geneva on Nov. 24, 2013.