Iran talks: Awaiting history, reporters Twitter away the hours

As they waited for news, any news, journalists settled into an unfulfilling routine of chasing evasive officials and half-hearted bird-watching. Even chocolate lost its magic.

Brendan Smialowski/Reuters
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (center l.), US Secretary of State John Kerry (center r.), and European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini (2nd r.) arrive to deliver statements after nuclear talks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne Thursday, April 2, 2015. Iran and world powers reached a framework on curbing Iran's nuclear program at marathon talks in Switzerland on Thursday that will allow further negotiations toward a final agreement.

Buttoned up in a long coat against the chill wind coming off Lake Geneva, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran was getting some fresh air Thursday after pulling an 8-1/2-hour, all-night negotiating session with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But if Mr. Zarif had hopes for a few reflective moments, to consider the fate of nuclear talks hanging in the balance after a 12-year standoff with world powers, they were dashed by a media stampede that raced to him like a sugar-starved colony of ants that had just come across a fresh apple core.

Hours before the dramatic evening announcement of a framework agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, Zarif was cornered as he entered the Beau Rivage hotel through a wrought iron gate.

“I believe it can be done, otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting my time,” he said, facing the cameras as the media scrum thickened.

More questions came as Zarif walked up the stairs, issuing fly-by quotes as hotel guards pushed a path through the wall of journalists.

“We are trying to finish this stage of our work,” Zarif explained, noting that “some issues have yet to be resolved.”

Zarif and his fellow negotiators have grown used to unrelenting media scrutiny – and to giving such anodyne quotes – in the dozens of rounds of nuclear talks since early 2012.

And journalists, too, have grown used to waiting, day after day, leaping up and clustering at the sight of any diplomat, hoping to be thrown a crumb of fact or insight from the nuclear negotiating table.

“Things learned covering #irantalks: it is never a mistake to eat breakfast. When you see running cameramen/women, duck/get out of the way,” tweeted Laura Rozen, an incessant tweeter on negotiating rounds, who writes for Al Monitor.

Chocolate loses its power

The journalists have been settled in large press rooms at the elegant Beau Rivage, in chaotic counterpoint to the wood columns, plush upholstery, and gilt trim that befit the hotel where the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1923.

Clustered tightly around tables heaving with computers, cameras, and tape recorders, reporters fueled by coffee and junk food battled chronic sleep deprivation.

At every round, an active rumor mill dominates pointless speculation, that turns into – especially at critical deadline moments – an emotional roller coaster.

“This is like reading tea leaves, but turning the cup upside down a fourth and fifth time, and writing the same story,” noted Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg, a veteran of talks coverage.

His Bloomberg colleague Indira Lakshmanan, also a veteran nuclear talks reporter, was more sharp in her humor. She tweeted in all capital letters: “Breaking – Hostage crisis Lausanne enters eighth day. Victims tortured with sleep deprivation, lack of info. Even chocolate fails to ease pain.”

The same official lines have been heard for years: There is always “some progress,” and always “gaps remain.” The “other side” always has to make tough political decisions, while “we are ready.”

When asked if a deal would be done Thursday, for example, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, replied: “Don’t rush.” And at lunchtime, Mr. Kerry told Britain’s Channel 4 correspondent Lindsey Hilsum that the negotiators were “working hard.”

For the birds

There is a limit to how much even professional journalists can do, in the middle of such a news vacuum.

Ms. Hilsum’s Twitter feed has had some more poetic moments, among tweets of lake birdlife that could have been under the hashtag #IranTalksOrnithologist.

“All Great Crested Grebes on Lac Leman asleep – not expecting rapid #irantalks progress. Also saw sparrows squabbling,” reads one.

And another, referring to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland: “@TSEliot: Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? These are the kind of questions journalists at #IranTalks ask selves.”

And from the BBC’s Lyse Doucet: “Looks like Lausanne is getting in #IranTalks mood. Patisserie is playing ‘Should I stay or should I go?’”

The music theme was also used for a photograph of the Iranian nuclear team walking across a sidewalk, looking exactly like the Beatles crossing the street on the Abbey Road album cover. The photo created a string of jokes, including, inevitably, references to “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Biking, jogging, and laundry

The last two round of nuclear talks in Lausanne have produced remarkable scenes: Kerry fully kitted out in bike racing gear, cycling along the lake front; China’s foreign minister taking a run at every opportunity; and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – just as he did during tough talks in Geneva in November 2013 – down in the hotel bar, ordering a stiff drink.

There have also been moments of near-total defeat.

The BBC Persian cameraman Trevor Lloyd has taken to making videos that show storm clouds speeding over the Beau Rivage, in a time-lapse sequence, with the sound of birds tweeting. Then he adds words, pleading for a speedy result.

The latest? “Dear 5+1 Ministers, I have now completely run out of clean underwear. That is all.”

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