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Failure to reach Iran nuclear deal may fortify hardline opponents

French objections helped block talks that appeared close to a preliminary deal. Kerry warned each day of delay meant ‘Iran will continue to enrich, and Iran will continue to put centrifuges in.’

The failure of three days of the most intensive, high-level negotiations yet between Iran and six world powers to reach a preliminary deal on Iran’s nuclear program has exposed the delicate process to the wrath of hardliners on all sides.

Hopes of agreement soared on Friday when US Secretary of State John Kerry unexpectedly joined the talks, prompting the arrival of foreign ministers of FranceBritain, Germany, and Russia. Their sights were set on a deal that would have frozen Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work for perhaps six months until a final deal could be reached, in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Though diplomats on all sides tried to put a brave face, failure to strike a deal – reportedly due to objections led publicly by France – will give more room for hardliners in Israel, the US Congress, and in Tehran, whose maximalist demands could wreck prospects of a diplomatic solution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pre-rejected any possible nuclear agreement with Iran on Saturday, claiming – as if a deal were already concluded – that the Jewish state “utterly rejects” the “deal of the century for Iran,” which he declared had got everything it wanted, and gave up nothing in return.

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President Barack Obama called Mr. Netanyahu to brief him on the facts. Today the top US negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, was flying to Israel to meet with senior Israeli officials. 

Mr. Kerry, when talks ended well after midnight, said that “We came to Geneva to narrow the differences, and I can tell you without any exaggeration we … made significant progress.”

But he also warned about the risks of delay.

“People need to stop and think about what happens each day now that you don’t have an agreement,” Kerry said. “Each day that you don’t have an agreement, Iran will continue to enrich, and Iran will continue to put centrifuges in, and Iran will continue its program.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was “not disappointed at all” in the result, even while top officials and media in Iran criticized France for its lead role in blocking the deal. A third round in Geneva, at the lower level of political directors, will resume on Nov. 20.

“What I was looking for was political determination, willingness, and good faith and readiness in order to end this,” Mr. Zarif said after the talks, during a joint press conference with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “I think we are all on the same wavelength, and that’s important. And that gives us the impetus to go forward when we meet again next time.”

Zarif wrote on his Facebook page Sunday that there was a need for consensus from the P5+1, but that “one of the delegations created some problems,” according to a translation by semi-official Fars News, titled: “Zarif blasts France for preventing Iran-Powers deal.”

Despite the diplomatic stiff upper lip – no side publicly criticized France from the podium, while recognizing only, as Ms. Ashton did, that “gaps remain” – disappointment was palpable.

Anti-French mood in Tehran

There was no hiding it for some in Tehran, where hardliners have been wishing for and predicting failure of Iran’s new, moderate negotiating team, and anti-French feeling reached fever pitch.

One Iranian posted on Facebook: “Let’s give the French Embassy to the Americans.”

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One joke asked with dark humor: “How tall are the French embassy walls?” suggesting a repeat of the late-2011 sacking of the British embassy by hard-line pressure groups, and, more famously, the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979 and subsequent hostage crisis.

“From taxi drivers to grocery sellers, people are angry toward France,” says an analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivities of dealing with the foreign media.

Iran’s new centrist president Hassan Rouhani has promised to ease the economic pain of US-orchestrated global sanctions, partly by resolving the nuclear issue. Zarif had made clear Iran was ready to deal, for example telling The Christian Science Monitor Saturday morning that “in the best of circumstances we can finish it” in Geneva.

“For three days, people carefully followed the news, and saw hope for a deal, for not only lifting some sanctions but to normalization of Iran’s relationship with the West, and especially the US and Britain,” says the Tehran analyst. 

“Now, despite no deal and being angry with France, people feel satisfied with the negotiation team,” adds the analyst. “They believe that not Iran but others are to blame for this failure.”

Content of the proposals had been kept secret. But as talks began reaching a critical point,French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France’s Inter radio that “we do not accept” the initial text, and that Western negotiators should “not be played for fools.”

French concerns reportedly prompted fury and division among diplomats of the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) – as well as surprise and anger for the Iranians – after months of joint work and two days of detailed technical discussions last week in Vienna.

On the eve of the talks, a senior US official told journalists that the aim was to reach a first-step deal that would halt the most sensitive elements of Iran’s nuclear work – uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, which is a few technical steps from weapons-grade, and other steps – in exchange for “very limited” sanctions relief. 

That deal is envisioned to effectively “stop the clock” for six months, while negotiators hammer out a comprehensive deal that would forever prevent Iran from being able to build nuclear weapons – an aim Iran says it rejects – in exchange for lifting oil, financial, and other sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

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Into the mix on Saturday, France raised additional concerns that echoed Israel’s demands, that Iran do away with its current stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – half of which Iran has already converted into oxide for fuel plates, which renders it very difficult to put to any future weapon use.

The French, Mr. Fabius said, also wanted work halted at a reactor currently under construction atArak that Iran says may come online next year.

The reactor would eventually produce plutonium – potentially another path to material for a bomb. But most nuclear experts do not consider Arak an immediate risk because Iranian timelines for such large facilities have often slipped by years, and to be useable in a weapon the plutonium would require reprocessing in another facility that has not been built, and for which no plans apparently exist.

The senior US diplomat briefing before the talks did not mention Arak as a fundamental issue until asked about it. Its status does not feature in the latest P5+1 proposal put to Iran last spring in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Yet by the end of this Geneva round, Kerry said that Arak – which appeared to be the deal-breaker in this round of talks – had become “a very central issue” that ministers “spent a significant amount of time on, and one we are absolutely adamant must be addressed in the context of any kind of agreement.”

“There are still some questions to be addressed,” Fabius said after the talks. Diplomats indicated that French views were shared by other delegations, to a degree.

From 30-minute chat to hours of meetings

Kerry held five hours of meetings with Zarif along with Ashton on Friday night – and many more hours on Saturday, in an unprecedented degree of contact since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Just two months ago, a 30-minute conversation between the two men made headlines. 

“I want to caution everyone from jumping to conclusions or believing premature reports or prejudging outcomes,” said Kerry. “The fact is that the negotiations are taking place enormously privately, and that is a sign of seriousness of what is taking place.” 

At a crucial stage, and in a bid to preempt hard-line attacks in Iran, President Rouhani’s twitter account streamed expressions of support for the Iranian negotiators. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also tweeted that Iran’s team were “children of the revolution” who deserved respect. 

By this morning, Khamenei blamed France, saying its officials “have been openly hostile towards the Iranian nation,” and that France’s role in blocking a deal was an “imprudent and inept move.”

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“A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy,” read Khamenei’s official Twitter feed. 

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott