It is hard to make out exactly what the seven exhausted foreign ministers of the world powers and Iran were actually talking about in Lausanne this week – especially in the last two days, when the negotiations overran their March 31 deadline for a framework nuclear accord.
The highly-colored reports from the Swiss hotel up until Thursday, April 2, bespoke a mighty battle between the American negotiators led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and the Iranian group, headed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, over four key points still at issue between them: the pace of sanctions relief, research and development projects, international inspections – including snap visits to any nuclear facilities they demanded, and, finally, the quantity of low-enriched uranium Iran may retain after the bulk of its stockpile is shipped overseas.
The drama was heightened by the sight of the American delegation marching into a tent set up in the hotel yard “to defeat eavesdropping” for a video conference with President Barack Obama in the White House. Kerry wanted to know whether to carry on the never-ending negotiations, which were looking more and more farcical as the hours ticked by without closure, or quit. This would be tantamount to the failure of the entire structure of nuclear diplomacy.
Obama directed the delegation to carry on talking with the Iranians and disregard the missed deadline as though nothing had changed.
The Secretary of State earlier appeared in an upper hotel window gazing out in the distance. Was he seeing a solution of the impasse visible to no one else?
The French Foreign Minister, Lauren Fabius, fed up with the game playing out between the Americans and the Iranians, left more than once for home. He returned Thursday saying: “We are a few meters from the finishing line, but it’s always the last meters that are the most difficult. We will try and cross them. It’s not done yet.”
Zarif told reporters: “Our friends need to decide whether they want to be with Iran based on respect or whether they want to continue based on pressure. They have tested the other one; it is high time to test this one.”
Those words carried two messages: One that the Iranians were serious when they reiterated in the past weeks that a framework accord for ending the current phase of negotiations was unacceptable, and insisted on the talks carrying straight through to a comprehensive deal by June 30.
The Iranian foreign minister’s second message was a negation of “pressure” – i.e., sanctions, in obedience to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s directive to the delegation to reject the incremental easing of international sanctions and press Tehran’s demand for immediate relief.
That directive was laid down by the ayatollah on February 18, when he determined that “an agreement would be arrived at not in two stages but in one stage to be completed by the end of June 2015 and the agreement would include the removal of all sanctions on Iran.”
The writing was on the wall for all the parties to see. The current deadline crisis could have been avoided by understanding that there was no way the Iranian delegation would ever disobey the supreme leader’s dictates.
Tehran is not averse to negotiating ad infinitum – so long as the talks go their way.
So the real gridlock centered on finding a procedure that fitted the US delegation’s instructions to get some sort of a deal signed, and the Iranian group’s directive to sign nothing that could be seen as an accord. So who will give ground first?