US – Iran nuclear deal diplomacy

July 18, 2015 1:39 pm

 

An Iranian woman holds up an Iranian flag as people celebrate the landmark nuclear deal, in Tehran, . Photo / AP

The talks themselves were a groundbreaking and risky proposition when
U.S. and Iranian officials met secretly in the sleepy Arab kingdom of
Oman, archenemies feinting for a diplomatic opening. The opposing sides
had barely spoken to one another in three-plus decades.
But after
a torturous two-year effort full of false starts, backward steps and
missed deadlines, world powers and Iran transformed those early
overtures into a nuclear accord that may reshape the security landscape
of the Mideast for a generation to come.
Tuesday’s agreement in
Vienna, hashed out among seven nations in all, appeared in jeopardy
several times even as the personalities changed and disputes evolved.
The Americans and the Iranians, and the French and Russians, all added
hiccups to the process. In the most recent round of discussions,
negotiators busted past three target dates.
The final push, which
encompassed 18 days of talks and seesawed between optimism and
pessimism, served as a microcosm of the diplomacy.

The round started with great energy as diplomats raced to wrap
up their work within four days. Reality quickly set in; negotiations
slogged on for days with no end in sight. Chinese, European and Russian
foreign ministers came and went, leaving most of the work to the
American delegation under Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iran
team under Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (centre) returned to Tehran earlier this week after Iran and the West reached a historic nuclear deal. Photo / AP
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
(centre) returned to Tehran earlier this week after Iran and the West
reached a historic nuclear deal. Photo / AP
“Sleepy and overworked,” Zarif said the day before the accord.
“Believe
me,” Kerry said when the talks were over, “had we been willing to
settle for a lesser deal, we would have finished this negotiation a long
time ago.”
In early 2013, few would have even imagined such a scenario.
President
Barack Obama, fresh into his second term, asked his advisers to think
big about a foreign policy agenda largely overshadowed in his first four
years by the economy, health care and other domestic issues.
Iran was at the top of the list, but the signs pointed toward continued hostility and possibly war.
The
Iranian nuclear program was inching closer toward nuclear weapons
capability. The U.S.-led campaign of international penalties was
crippling Iran’s economy. Iran and the West were supporting opposite
sides in Syria’s civil war. Israel was threatening military action of
its own against the Islamic Republic. The talk from Tehran and
Washington was of animosity, not cooperation.
The diplomatic path out of the crisis started with a gamble from both sides – direct talks.
Brought
together to resolve the fate of three American hikers held captive by
Iran, U.S. and Iranian diplomats met on neutral ground in the Omani
capital of Muscat in 2012 and again in 2013 to test whether the
opportunity for a broader exchange was possible. Little was accomplished
in those early meetings. But it became clear that the threat of a
nuclear-armed Iran or a U.S. military attack needed to be confronted
first.
Perhaps more important, the U.S. realized it might be able
to deal with a government it considered the leading state sponsor of
global terrorism. Iran discovered it could speak with a country its
officials still sometimes called “the Great Satan.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement on the Iran talks deal at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria. Photo / AP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a
statement on the Iran talks deal at the Vienna International Center in
Vienna, Austria. Photo / AP
Iran’s citizens altered the equation by electing
moderate-leaning Hassan Rouhani as president, in the summer of 2013, on a
promise of compromise.
U.S.-Iranian talks quickly gained speed.
But when America’s Mideast allies and members of Congress realized what
was going on, many were outraged, as were Iran’s hard-liners.
By
the time of Rouhani’s historic telephone conversation with Obama in
September 2013, American and Iranian diplomats had already sketched out
in private the parameters of a grand compromise that would lock in place
Iran’s enrichment of bomb-making material and other nuclear activity in
exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of relief from economic
sanctions.
Negotiators struggled for two months to unite on an
approach for putting in place a “joint plan of action” reached in
November 2013. In a scramble to complete the entire agreement within six
months, the challenges began to come in from all sides.
At one point, Zarif walked out of the talks. He wasn’t gone for long, however.
Congress threatened to disrupt the diplomacy with new Iran sanctions; Obama kept lawmakers at bay.
Israel
led a fierce international lobbying campaign against any long-term
accommodation of Iran’s nuclear activity, but failed to sway the Obama
administration.
Deadlines for a comprehensive pact slipped – in July 2014 and last November, and again three times in the past two weeks.
After
an April framework, the U.S. and its partners faced backtracking from
Iranian negotiators and the wrath of several defiant speeches from
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader.
That
deal itself had come 48 hours after a final deadline, and disputes
among the world powers were part of the problem. France clamored for
tougher commitments from Tehran. Russia balked at sanctions provisions
that would see it potentially lose its U.N. veto power.
Obama,
himself under pressure, yielded shortly afterward to the overwhelming
demand of American lawmakers for a post-deal, congressional-review
period during which he would be prevented from making good on any
concessions to the Iranians.
After a last, high-level preparatory
meeting in May before the final push, Kerry broke his leg while
bicycling in the French Alps.
Faced with serious divides – over
inspections, Iranian research and development of advanced nuclear
technology, the future of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran, and other
matters – Kerry briefed the media on July 4 weekend and revealed his
doubts.
The talks “could go either way,” Kerry warned ominously,
before hobbling on crutches back to the 19th century Austrian palace
hosting the talks.
Five days later, he returned and threatened to
abandon the talks unless Iran made a series of tough choices, prompting
Iran’s Zarif to accuse the U.S. of backtracking.
The mood soured. On several occasions, tempers flared and voices were raised.
By
the beginning of this week, the gaps had been whittled down to a
remaining few. These were finally bridged in a meeting that started with
Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Zarif then joined the discussion.
A
half-hour thereafter, the ministers emerged and told aides that after
18 days of often fractious negotiation, they were satisfied.

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