With Iran nuclear deal missed, world powers rush back to talks

The failure of recent talks between Iran and world powers on its nuclear program could help hardliners opposed to a deal. Negotiators are scrambling to prevent that.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano talks to journalists after arriving at the Vienna International Airport in Schwechat Tuesday, November 12, 2013.

A blame game has erupted between the US and Iran over who is responsible for the failure to reach an initial deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, despite days of unprecedented high-level diplomacy.

Such a deal has never been closer, diplomats say, and talks are set to resume in Geneva in just eight days. But competing narratives of what took place over the weekend are being used by both sides to jab at each other – and to quell hard-line opponents of any deal who think their side is giving too much away. 

The decision to meet again so quickly may prevent hawks in Congress from torpedoing the process with more sanctions. In Iran, it may keep open the window endorsed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“It’s an incredible shame that we have had this erupt into public recrimination,” says Shashank Joshi, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. The chain of events “can easily have a cyclical effect, and can easily allow spoilers to exploit these small breaches to pull on the string and unravel the whole thing."

Timing is everything, Mr. Joshi says. “I don’t think there is enough time for Congress to do anything really reckless, nor do I think there is enough time for Iranian hardliners to really exert significant pressure,” he says. “They’ve kept up enough momentum to make sure that Khamenei’s authority will carry with them until the next round.”

Fingers pointing every way

The turn toward mutual accusations is a sharp departure from weeks in which all sides agreed not to discuss details of talks and months in which negotiators all but cooed about renewed prospects for a deal despite 10 years of failed diplomacy. The June election of President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who vows “moderation," sent hopes for a deal skyrocketing. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the six world powers negotiating with Iran in Geneva were unified behind the latest offer to Iran and made no mention of the French role in hardening an earlier offer that had already been largely worked out with Iran.

“The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal,” Mr. Kerry said on Monday in Abu Dhabi, about the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany). “There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment.” 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded on Twitter, directly chiding Kerry and referring to France as the spoiler.

“Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?” Mr. Zarif tweeted

Iran is “committed to constructive engagement…to achieve shared objectives,” he added. Zarif added in another tweet: “No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday. But it can further erode confidence.”

Zarif’s comment referred to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who raised the ire of fellow diplomats when he broke protocol by discussing details of the talks, saying early in the process that "nothing has been agreed yet," and later that France would not accept a “fool’s game.”

The preliminary deal now under discussion is meant to stop Iran’s program advancing for six months, while a permanent agreement is reached that would prevent Iran from being able to acquire nuclear weapons, an ambition Iran says it rejects.

Mr. Fabius said France would insist in the initial deal that Iran halt work on its Arak heavy water reactor and shrink its stockpile of enriched uranium – issues that other nations expected to feature in the final stages, months from now.

Another complication was a dispute over whether Iran’s “right” to enrich – which Tehran demands be included in the endgame of any deal – would be mentioned in the preamble of the current text. 

The last minute recalibration was confirmed by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. 

“The position put to Iran by all of us together in the final hours of the discussions…had been amended in the light of comments from various of the parties concerned,” Mr. Hague told Parliament in London yesterday. “A completely united position was put to the Iranians at the close of our discussions, so reports of vetoes by one country, or obstruction by any country, should be seen in that light.” 

Hague said it was a “pity” that a deal had not been reached, “because even losing 10 days implies some loss of momentum here.”

The French role led to an “11th-hour toughening” of the offer to Iran after 60 hours of negotiations – much of it used by the P5+1 to find a common position – which left “little time for the Iranians to respond,” reported The Guardian.

“We were very, very close actually, extremely close” to a deal, Kerry said in a BBC interview published today. Close contact between the US and Iran was a bonus, he said: “We haven’t been speaking for 35 years. We just talked more in 30 hours than we have in those prior 30 years.”

Russia said that meant failure "was not the fault of the Iranians," and that the US should not blame Iran, according to a Russian foreign ministry official widely quoted by Russian news agencies today. "Such an interpretation simplifies to an extreme and even distorts what happened in Geneva," the official said.

Inspections moving ahead

Separately on Monday, Iran signed a deal with the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency to provide “managed access” for inspectors to a heavy water production plant and a uranium mine.

The deal is the first step forward in two years of talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on access issues and outstanding questions about possible past weapons-related work by Iran. 

IAEA inspectors have already done more man-hour inspections in Iran than any other country. Both sides agreed to cooperate more closely to ensure the “exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program” and to “resolve all present and past issues.” 

Noticeably absent was any reference to Parchin, a sprawling military complex south of Tehran which the IAEA has requested to visit multiple times to address suspicions that implosion experiments may have been carried out a decade ago. Reports over the last two years state that the site has undergone dramatic changes that could have erased any evidence of past work.

“This is an important step forward to start with, but much more needs to be done,” IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in Tehran, as the deal was signed.   

“My own sense is the IAEA process, including this new framework, is pretty much entirely hostage to what happens in Geneva,” says Joshi of RUSI. Absent a broader deal there, “it is inconceivable to me that Iran would give meaningful access to the IAEA, because why…give up something that could be used as a bargaining chip that could be used in subsequent negotiations?”

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