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At Iran nuclear talks, crumbs of hope and jockeying for advantage

Diplomats underscored their uncertainty about reaching any deal, two days after missing a self-imposed deadline. Still, the talks have witnessed progress that would have been impossible to predict even a few years ago.

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R), U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (C), National Security Council point person on the Middle East Robert Malley (L) and Chief of Staff Jon Finer (2nd L) meet on the terrace of a hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria July 2, 2015.
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On a sunny balcony of the 5-star Palais Coburg hotel, enjoying the perfect Viennese weather before a television interview, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif waved like royalty to the press below.

“I have to be hopeful,” he said in reply to a shouted question, referring to the Iran nuclear talks that may be in their final days. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

After more than a decade of diplomatic combat, that crumb of optimism may have as much to do with the perfect weather as with the state of play at the negotiating table, as Iran and six world powers jockey for final advantage – two days and counting after missing their latest self-imposed deadline.

Or it may not.

Even as hope spreads here that a deal is imminent to limit Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful use, in exchange for lifting sanctions, officials on all sides urged caution. It was the routine diplo-speak that has changed little for years, even as these talks have repeatedly yielded surprises and progress.

“I don’t think we’re at any kind of breakthrough moment,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said today, a sentiment echoed by German Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who noted that the “last steps are the hardest.”

A senior Iranian official underscored the uncertainty: “Someone was asking me: ‘Are we going to make it, or not?’ My honest answer is: I don’t know.”

Yet, behind closed doors at the Palais Coburg, experts from all sides have been hammering out a primary text perhaps 80 pages long, with further technical annexes to be attached, that – if finally agreed on – will be the most significant non-proliferation event this century.

Despite all the diplomatic posturing and uncompromising rhetoric, these talks have witnessed progress that would have been impossible to predict even a few years ago.

The near-constant negotiations of recent times – yielding an interim agreement in 2013 that froze Iran’s nuclear work, and producing last April a detailed set of parameters for the final deal – could not be further from the stumbling first steps of this process.

A nuclear fuel swap deal agreed to in October 2009 in Geneva failed to materialize, for example. And when negotiators next met in Geneva, in December 2010, the only outcome was agreement on eight words that included “cooperation to find common ground” – but did not even include the word “nuclear.”

Another round in January 2011 in Istanbul stalled over two Iranian preconditions: That UN sanctions be lifted and that Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium be recognized before talks could even begin.

The ice was finally broken in April 2012 in Istanbul – a round that yielded the most positive atmosphere in nearly a decade, and agreement to begin a “sustained process of serious dialogue” that would be guided by a “step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”

Since then the talks have been buffeted by maximalist positions. The Iranians could hardly hide their anger when, during the next round – in the midst of a sandstorm that closed the Baghdad airport in May 2012 – they were presented with a proposal that would have dismantled nearly all of their nuclear program, with what they considered little in return.

“I think it was a complete failure,” an Iranian diplomat told the Monitor at the time. “The more they talk, the worse it gets. The atmosphere is like Baghdad’s weather.”

The entire unplanned second day in Baghdad was spent trying to craft a mutually acceptable statement. Subsequent rounds were held in Moscow, and two in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in freezing temperatures.

The turnaround came in the fall of 2013, when the newly elected President Hassan Rouhani deployed a fresh team of nuclear negotiators, led by the English-speaking Zarif and powered by a mandate to make a deal that would get sanctions lifted and fix a deeply struggling economy.

Negotiators on both sides note that the talks are tough – and that each side's red lines may not overlap enough to strike a deal.

“What I’ve learned is this is a roller coaster, and if you try to imagine what’s going to happen the next day, you plan for it, you get ready for it, your work for it and then you take what comes,” said one senior US official deeply involved in the talks for more that two years. “I don’t think it’s worthwhile to get into hypotheticals. We will deal with what comes our way.”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 

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