After a promising start, nuclear talks between Iran and the six global powers failed to achieve a breakthrough, stumbling over some heavy historical baggage of mistrust that had accumulated on account of years of animosity between Tehran and the West.
John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, who disrupted his planned West Asia tour to be in Geneva to lend his personal political weight to push through the deal, summed the underlying factor that crashed an agreement that was tantalisingly close to fruition.
“It takes time to build confidence between countries that have really been at odds with each other for a long time now,” observed Mr. Kerry. But he added hopefully: “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than when we came.”
Despite the setback on Saturday, negotiators from the two sides will pick up the pieces when they meet again on November 20 for another round of talks in Geneva. But the absence of foreign ministers at that meeting, which will be headed at the level of director generals, have dimmed hopes of an imminent second chance to achieve a breakthrough.
Notwithstanding Mr. Kerry’s optimism, it became clear as talks progressed that a deal with Iran was imposing a heavy strain on the trans-Atlantic alliance and its partners. Already, the prospect of a deal seemed to have driven a wedge in ties between the U.S. and Israel. On Saturday, fissures had developed between its western partners and France, whose foreign minister, Laurent Fabius took up the cudgels to tear apart a draft agreement as it got closer to realisation.
Choosing to speak to France Inter radio station as talks progressed, Mr. Fabius said that Paris would like to avoid falling for what he crudely described as “a fools game”. “We are for an agreement, that's clear. But the agreement has got to be serious and credible. The initial text made progress but not enough,” he observed.
The French Foreign Minister was emphatic that a deal had to cover the dangers of a fully functional heavy water reactor in Arak, which could be used to produce plutonium — potential bomb making material — in the future. Mr. Fabius’ perception aligned with Israel, which has been demanding that Iran must halt construction of the reactor.
Hawks in Israel and the U.S. point out that it would be hard to militarily attack the Arak plant once nuclear fuel was loaded into the reactor, as this would cause an environmental disaster because of radiation leakages. Israel had raided Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and more recently in Syria, before fuel had been loaded.
Critics, however, dismiss this argument as flawed. The New York Times is quoting Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, as saying that the Arak plant could have become the subject of negotiations in the future as it would be completed in a year, and extraction of plutonium that could be used in a bomb would take even longer.
The Geneva talks had been structured to deliver a deal that would at the outset identify the starting point as well as the end game of negotiations, and embed a spiral of reciprocal confidence building measures within. The negotiators were apparently looking for a six-month timeframe to conclude the two staged deal. The Iranians seemed to have agreed at the outset to halt the expansion of their nuclear programme and suspend 20 per cent enrichment of uranium, to allay western fears that Tehran was working to make an atomic bomb, which requires uranium purified at least to a 90 per cent level.
In return, the Iranians have been looking for major sanctions relief. Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted Majid Takt-Ravanchi, a member of the negotiating team, as saying that Iran wanted an easing of the oil and banking sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran during the first phase of the deal.
Nevertheless, the leaders of the two delegations — Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy head of the European Union and Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister and head of delegation from Iran — put up a brave face in their interaction with the media at the end of talks. “I think it was natural that when we started dealing with the details, there would be differences,” said Mr. Zarif. On her part, Ms. Ashton pointed to the positives by saying that a “lot of concrete progress has been made, but some differences remain”.
Separately, Mr. Kerry tried to paper over the rift with France that had emerged during the final day of talks. He endorsed the French perception that curbs on the Arak reactor should be included in the initial part of the deal.