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Historic Deal Curbs Iran’s Nuclear Program While Easing U.S.-Led Devastating Economic Sanctions

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Iran and six world powers have clinched a deal to temporarily limit and roll back the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the easing of international sanctions. The United States and Iran described the agreement as a first step toward a comprehensive deal. The deal was announced after five days of negotiations in Geneva, but it followed months of previously undisclosed secret talks between American and Iranian officials. We speak to Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council, just back from Geneva where he attended the Iran nuclear talks.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Iran and six world powers have clinched a deal to temporarily limit and roll back the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the easing of international sanctions. The United States and Iran described the agreement as a first step toward a comprehensive deal. The deal was announced after five days of negotiations in Geneva but had followed months of previously undisclosed secret talks between American and Iranian officials. On Sunday, President Obama outlined key parts of the deal.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. And key parts of the program will be rolled back. Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpile. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium. Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.

These are substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb. Meanwhile, this first step will create time and space over the next six months for more negotiations to fully address our comprehensive concerns about the Iranian program. And because of this agreement, Iran cannot use negotiations as cover to advance its program.

AMY GOODMAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the agreement indicates the world has recognized Iran’s nuclear rights. [For more on] the deal, we’re joined by Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council. He returned Sunday from Geneva after attending the talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of this agreement, Reza?

REZA MARASHI: What we’ve witnessed over the past few days in Geneva is really nothing short of historic. And you only really have to juxtapose what we’ve seen over the past few days with three, four months ago—what a difference an Iranian president can make, and what a difference diplomacy can make when political leaders are willing to take risks for peace and invest in the process. As a result of that willingness, we have seen not only rollbacks on Iran’s nuclear program, but we’ve also seen a willingness on the part of Western countries to limit the amount of sanctions that they’re putting on Iran, adding no new sanctions, provide sanctions relief, and, I would argue, most importantly, finesse the language surrounding this issue of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. The language that was used in the agreement allows both sides to walk away with a win-win scenario, where the West can say, “We are not acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich,” Iran can go home and say, “They have acknowledged our right to enrich,” and that’s what diplomacy is about at the end of the day, creating win-win outcomes. So this is nothing short of positive.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the six countries, world powers, involved and why they, in particular, were involved in this agreement with Iran?

REZA MARASHI: That’s a great question. Let’s unpack that. You know, when the P5+1, as it’s called, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, put this process together, it dates back to the Bush administration. And the Bush administration refused to engage Iran seriously in diplomacy, so they used our allies in Europe as a political cover of sorts to create a process that could engage Iran diplomatically without the United States leading the process or being seen as driving it. The Obama administration inherited this and has used it in different ways in an attempt to maintain unity within the international community vis-à-vis Iran. But, actually, what we saw in Geneva was more negotiations between the P5+1 themselves than their diplomacy directly with Iran, because they themselves had to get on the same page in terms of what they were going to offer Iran in terms of compromises. So, the more cooks you have in the kitchen, the harder it becomes to find a spoon. Fortunately, everybody was able to get on the same page, and a historic first-step deal was reached.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain why it’s Iran that the world is focusing around, around this whole issue of nuclear power and weapons?

REZA MARASHI: Another great question. I would say that there’s two reasons why so much focus is placed on Iran. One, we’re talking about the Middle East, which is a region where if you have international rules of the game as it pertains to foreign policy and national security, those rules of the game clearly change once you enter this part of the world, because of the oil and gas resources they have there, because Israel is there, and because the United States has more or less run the security of this part of the world since the end of World War II. But I think, more specifically than that, the reason why it’s critical, because we are talking about the world’s most dangerous weapons at the end of the day, and there’s little to no trust between the United States and Iran. Fortunately, diplomacy at the outset does not require trust. Through the diplomatic process, you build trust that’s necessary to reach a final agreement, and hopefully, in six months’ time from now, we’ll be able to reach that point.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the words of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] The outcome of these negotiations is that the five plus one, or, in other words, the world powers, have recognized Iran’s nuclear rights. The Islamic Republic of Iran innately enjoys this right, and this right has been granted to all the signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And for this reason, more than 40 countries in the world carry out enrichment programs with the NPT. And on this basis, the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors the performance of most countries who produce nuclear fuel.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what Iran gets out of this, Reza Marashi?

REZA MARASHI: Absolutely, and that’s a critical component. The way that they’ve set this process up is to essentially break it into two parts, step one and step two. In step one, the Iranian government will receive some relief from sanctions, more specifically on gold and petrochemicals. They will receive access to Iranian money in foreign bank accounts. Those assets will be unfrozen, and a clean banking channel has been set up to facilitate that process. They will receive spare parts to civilian aircraft that have long been sanctioned and put innocent Iranians in danger as they’ve flown around the country and flown around internationally. And they’ll also have received wording related to this idea of their right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. And this is critical because I would argue that Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani, 10 years ago, when they were negotiating with the Europeans over this exact issue, reached an agreement with three European countries. And then it was the Bush administration that torpedoed the process and said Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. So, the reason why, I would argue, we have made progress on the diplomatic front is because America’s position has shifted from no Iranian uranium enrichment program to no Iranian bomb. And that’s a huge difference between those two things.

AMY GOODMAN: And Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the nuclear deal reached with Iran, saying Israel is not bound by the agreement.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: This agreement has made the world a much more dangerous place. I know that many share the concern of Israel, especially in the region. And there’s a reason for this. For years the international community has demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment. Now, for the first time, the international community has formally consented that Iran continue its enrichment of uranium. And this is in direct contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Reza Marashi, why were they so significant in these talks, given they weren’t a part of them?

REZA MARASHI: Well, the relationship that Israel has had with the United States is obviously long-standing and doesn’t need a lot of explanation, but what I think is important here is as a result of the influence that Israel has in American politics, Israel’s interest has to be taken into account. And I would argue that the Obama administration over the past four-plus years has bent over backwards to try to understand and accommodate Israeli concerns and interests. But at the end of the day, even allies like the United States and Israel are not going to have their interests aligned 100 percent of the time, and this is a perfect example of that.

So what we’ve seen over the past couple of months, especially as diplomacy has picked up and become serious, is a prime minister who has been trying to extract as much as he possibly can from the diplomatic process, while at the same time showing his political base at home that he’s strong—at least attempting to show them that he’s strong, because, we have to remember, he has a right-wing coalition that’s helped him get elected as the prime minister of Israel, and all politics is local. So, going forward, I think the Israelis have now focused their sights on this larger-term step two process that will be negotiated over the next six months. So, while we’ve made progress on the diplomatic front, I don’t think we have heard or seen the end of Israeli opposition to this deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama talking about the sanctions regime.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States and our friends and allies have agreed to provide Iran with modest relief while continuing to apply our toughest sanctions. We will refrain from imposing new sanctions, and we will allow the Iranian government access to a portion of the revenue that they have been denied through sanctions. But the broader architecture of sanctions will remain in place, and we will continue to enforce them vigorously. And if Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council, your response to this issue of the easing of the sanctions?

REZA MARASHI: I would argue that it’s a net positive, because the whole idea behind sanctions is to create leverage for yourself when you do finally sit down at the negotiating table, and the sanctions can then be bargained away in return for Iranian concessions to create a win-win outcome that can produce a peaceful solution to the conflict. But here’s the thing about sanctions. We’ve had over three decades of sanctions on Iran and, over the past two to three years, some really back-breaking sanctions that have not only adversely affected the Iranian economy, but the lives of innocent Iranians inside of Iran. And we should ask ourselves, is this really the way that we want to solve conflict going forward in the future? Do we want to destroy economies of countries abroad without really maximizing our diplomatic resources until the 11th hour when they’re on the precipice of a military conflict that I think all parties would independently seek to avoid? So, while we’ve walked back from the brink, we should ask ourselves what we’ve learned from this process going forward. And if nothing else, I think we’ve learned that sanctions, if not used in unison with diplomacy, in equal footing, are nothing more than a blunt instrument that hurts innocent people.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, just announced this morning that there will be peace talks in Geneva. For the first time, Syrian government and opposition have agreed to attend at January 22nd. Can you talk about how what’s happened with these Iran talks could affect both Syria and also the issue of Israel-Palestine?

REZA MARASHI: Absolutely. You know, there are linkages between these issues insofar as Iran over the past three decades has created a seat for itself at the table when it comes to solving regional conflicts, as the United States has tried to ensure that Iran does not have a seat at the table to discuss regional security issues. The nuclear program is the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room. And I think the U.S. and Iran and the Europeans, as well, have both realized that you can’t really make progress on any other issue until you make progress on this one overwhelming issue. So, as progress is made on the nuclear front, it opens up the possibility to broaden the dialogue, broaden the conversation with the Iranians in an effort to try and find peaceful solutions to conflict not only in Syria, but also, for example, Israel-Palestine, in Lebanon, and throughout the Middle East as a whole. We’re not going to be able to crack that nut until we’re talking to the Iranians about these issues, and I think we’ve made a positive step or two in that direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Saudi Arabia also not happy, like Israel, with this—with the talks and the agreement, Reza.

REZA MARASHI: Well, that’s certainly true. We’ve seen Saudi Arabia voice concerns that have been somewhat similar to the concerns that the Israeli government has raised. I think what we’ve seen, though, is Saudi Arabia and Israel viewing this situation as a zero-sum game, meaning that if the Iranians are winning, they must be losing. But we don’t have to look very far into our recent past to see Iranian presidents and the Iranian government as a whole managing their relationship with the Saudis in a much more effective way through diplomacy. And there’s no reason why we can’t revert back to that paradigm. It’s not going to happen overnight, but Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani in Iran have emphasized, since day one, when their administration came into office, that their top priority, even more than the nuclear program and solving that issue with the United States and the international community, has been improving its relations with its regional neighbors. I think now that we’ve made progress on the nuclear front, you’re going to see the Iranian government double down on this issue to try to repair relations with the Saudis and other Persian Gulf countries, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, I want to thank you for being with us, research director at the National Iranian American Council. He has just returned last night from Geneva after attending the talks that have just concluded on Iran’s nuclear program. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Honduras, the contested elections there. Stay with us.

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