Iran FM: 'It's a historic opportunity for all of us'

By: Mick Krever
By: Mick Krever
A Sunday deadline was looming for negotiators to reach agreement on a comprehensive solution on Iran

CNN's Jim Sciutto chats with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Foreign Ministry compound on January 29, 2014.

(CNN) -- Talks between world powers and Iran over that country's nuclear program are "a historic opportunity for all of us to end a rather prolonged chapter," Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in Vienna.

A Sunday deadline was looming for negotiators to reach agreement on a comprehensive solution on Iran's nuclear program; Iran, in return, is seeking broad sanctions relief and access to international markets.

Iran and the group known as P5+1 have agreed to a four-month extension of negotiations toward a final comprehensive nuclear deal, two Western diplomats told CNN on Friday.

P5 +1 includes Germany and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.

"I think we have made enough serious discussion for us to think about the feasibility of continuing these discussions," Zarif said on Thursday. "I think Secretary (of State John) Kerry made that recommendation. I have made the recommendation."

"The point is whether it is possible to make a deal, we're not talking about a bad deal or a good deal, but a doable deal. A lasting deal."

The objective, he said, "is to ensure that Iran's nuclear program will always remain peaceful. I think that is scientifically possible. It doesn't require arbitrary red lines, arbitrary numbers. You just need to find scientific ways of making sure that Iran's nuclear program addresses a practical need. And that is what we have put on the table."

Amanpour asked Zarif whether he could tell "our audience that you will agree to intrusive inspections for a long period of time?"

In other words, she asked, "What are you planning to deliver?"

The program, he said, would be "geared towards a very specific objective" -- peaceful energy production -- "and then if you convert this uranium that you produce into oxide and into fuel, rather than keep it in a form that can be re-enriched to weapons grade."

In addition, he said, Iran will accept "the most serious international inspection regime that is available legally."

"We will put in place an international mechanism in order to make sure that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons."

Bridging the gap

To listen to the foreign minister, Iran's solution sounds "awfully easy," as Amanpour put it. But, of course, these negotiations have been ongoing for many months, since an interim agreement reached by all parties last November.

"Of course, we have a lot of gaps to fill in order to reach a comprehensive deal," Zarif said. "We have made some progress. People have started to listen."

"An approach to problem-solving is the approach that you require to solve problems. That has started rather late in the process, but it's better late than never."

Some analysts say, however, that a speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week may have set just the kind of red lines that Zarif says should have no part in negotiations.

Khamenei reiterated that he had faith in Zarif and his negotiating team, but also said Iran must boost its enrichment capacity, according to Reuters.

"I think if you listen to what the leader said," Zarif said, "it makes it clear that our program has a peaceful logic."

"Our entire nuclear program -- be it where we convert yellowcake into gas and we convert gas into enriched uranium -- all of this are designed specifically in order to address the requirements of a power plant. That should give you the assurance that this is not for bomb-making."

'Obsession with sanctions -- what has it achieved?'

Even if a comprehensive deal is struck with Iran, it will take U.S. congressional approval to dismantle the extensive sanctions that have been levied against Tehran over the years.

"Have the American negotiators," Amanpour asked, "honestly walked you through the complexity of dismantling this draconian and complex sanctions regime that's been imposed?"

"We more or less know the complexities of the U.S. system," Zarif said.

"But what is necessary for me, and I think this is very important particularly for our American audience to understand, is that the sanctions have not achieved anything. This infatuation with sanctions, obsession with sanctions -- what has it achieved?"

"A lot of resentment of the Iranian people, who cannot buy medicine with their own money."

"But at the same time, instead of 200 centrifuges that we're spinning in the beginning of these crippling sanctions, we now have 20,000. So this is the net, if you do an accounting, this is the net outcome of sanctions."

Zarif nonetheless agreed that while the "Iranian people have learned to live with sanctions," they have been "crippling" and "very damaging to the Iranian people."

"Sanctions have cost us money, but they haven't brought us down to our knees, and they will never do that."

Instability next-door

Crippling sanctions are far from Iran's only international affairs problem. In neighboring Iraq, Sunni extremists have taken over large swaths of the country and precipitated a political crisis.

The "extremism and sectarianism," he said, is a threat to the entire region, including Iran. "We don't like instability in our neighborhood."

Iran has gone so far as to deploy Revolutionary Guard units to Iraq, senior security officials in Baghdad tell CNN.

"Iran, first of all, wants Iraq territorial integrity and I have spoken to almost every regional foreign minister and all of them want to ensure that Iraq remains secure with its own boundaries," Zarif said.

As the largest Shiite power, according to diplomats, Iran has in the past gone to significant lengths to support the Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki; Ali Khedery, former long-serving U.S. special assistant in Baghdad, detailed the relationship to Amanpour recently.

But al-Maliki now faces an enormous political crisis at home, and Zarif seemed to indicate that Iranian support would not be bottomless.

"We're not in the business of supporting any individual. We support the Iraqi people. We support the choices of the Iraqi people, whoever Iraq can choose as its prime minister will have the full backing of Iran."

The same, he said, goes for the Iraqi prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

He urged a "unified approach" from the international community, "not shortsighted policies."

"It is a problem of extremism. It is a problem of demagogues using inherent resentment that have arisen out of decades of injustice in our region."

"But these are demagogues using these resentments in order to advance a very dangerous political agenda. And this dangerous political agenda may fit in the designs of some external powers -- I don't know. I do not want to espouse conspiracy theories."

A 30-minute walk, but little else
As the chief Iranian negotiator, Zarif has had little time to think of anything besides the intricately technical negotiations that have been at a fever pitch, especially in recent days.

"You have been cooped up in this hotel for the better part of the last two weeks," Amanpour said. "This is also the city of Mozart and Beethoven. Do you ever get to think of anything other than negotiating?"

"Unfortunately not," he said. "Over the last two, three weeks my colleagues and I have been so engaged in these negotiations that we only get a chance to go and take a walk every evening for half an hour so that we regain our sanity."

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