Geneva talks about Iran's nuclear program end without agreement but on an up-note, will resume 20 November

Talks on Iran’s nuclear program that technically entered a fourth day in Geneva ended just after midnight on Sunday morning,  on an up-note.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told exhausted journalists that in fact the talks had been very productive and positive.  “We do have our differences”, Zarif said, “but that’s why we’re here…because of our differences”.  But, Zarif indicated, he thought there could be agreement on a resolution at the next meeting, now set for 20 November [also in Geneva].

“What we were looking for was political will and determination, in order to end this phase and move to an end game’, Zarif said at the press conference. “I think we are all on the same wavelength”.

Analysts have said that the failure to agree on a deal tonight, however, will open the way for a campaign with renewed strength by its opponents, including inside Iran, inside the US, and also in Israel — where Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has vowed to go it alone against the perceived Iranian threat — and even to do “whatever is necessary” to defend the security of the state of Israel.

Iran has been subject to an increasingly tough sanctions regime imposed by the UN Security Council since 2006, and also bilaterally by the US + the EU for refusing to stop its uranium enrichment.   When Iran did not stop its enrichment, the U.S, pushed for several sets of increasingly restrictive and punitive sanctions.  They have  had a biting sting, but Iran has only increased it’s efforts. One of Iran’s main arguments against the sanctions is not about the suffering they’ve caused, but is rather to say that they haven’t worked — and that Iran has despite — and to spite — the sanctions, their scientists and technicians have been able to increase their enriched-uranium production capacity from a couple of hundred enrichment centrifuges, to something like 14,000 now.

Iranian elections earlier this year saw confrontational and “defiant” President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who’d served the maximum two terms, replaced with “reformist” Hassan Rouhani. [Rouhani is a former nuclear negotiator who had previously tried, but failed — due to the opposition of the US under George W. Bush — to reach a deal with major powers that disapproved of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary tendencies].

The election and inauguration of Rouhani raised hopes of a possibility of accomodation — even as Israel raised heightened alarms about the advance in Iran’s nuclear prowess which Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu argues mean inevitable weaponization, and a severe threat to Israel.

Netanyahu’s warnings have become increasingly strident in recent weeks, as the negotiations with Iran appeared to move forward. Netanyahu is opposed to any deal other than the complete dismantling of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and shutting down some of its nuclears installations [which, yes, does conform with what UN Security Council has demanded].

Haaretz wrote in an editorial that “Netanyahu continues to view the very diplomatic move itself as an existential threat, because it will leave Iran with a nuclear capability that could be transformed within a short period into bomb-making capability. ‘Israel is not obliged by this agreement’, Netanyahu said, nudging Israel toward the status of a country that is threatening the international consensus…Netanyahu can disagree with the American conception of how to best thwart Iran’s aspirations, but boasting of Israel’s ability to thumb its nose at the international diplomatic process is a dangerous threat in itself”.  This is published here.

There was apparently a very difficult meeting between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Kerry at Ben Gurion Airport on Friday, just before Kerry headed off to attend the talks in Geneva.  A joint press conference was cancelled, and Netanyahu came before the cameras to say dramatically and vehemently that the deal being considered in the Geneva talks was “a Very.Bad.Deal.”

In Geneva, meanwhile, Kerry’s arrival on Friday was electrifying.

Iran’s new Foreign Minister Zarif has been saying, since September, that Iran will not stop its enrichment program “in its entirety”.

US Administration officials have recently begun to talk, instead, of “stopping the clock” — that is, of pausing activities so that Iran will not be just weeks away, but instead 6 months to two years away, from accumulating enough enriched uranium to be able to construct a nuclear weapon if it wished.

Iran would also have to prepare a delivery system, if it intended to become a nuclear-weapons-capable country — and Iran has a growing missile capacity, and is a maritime power.  But Iran maintains that it does not want and has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and it says it is opposed not only to nuclear weapons but also to all forms of weapons of mass destruction.

So why, critics say, is it so doggedly pursuing its nuclear program?

Iran’s arguments for having its nuclear program are 1) for energy purposes and 2) to ensure that it will be able to generate its own nuclear-powered energy indigeneously and independently — after suffering from decades of sanctions, even before the revolution that replaced the Shah with an Islamic Republic.

But things have changed.  US President Obama backed off from what looked like an imminent attack on Syria at the end of August [after a chemical weapons attack with mass casualties on the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta on 21 August].  Iran [and Hizballah fighters from Lebanon] are supporting the Syrian regime diplomatically, financially, and with military advisers, while Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries are backing opposition rebels.  Israel  has not publicly acknowledged any of the attacks it is believed to have carried out on Syrian military targets, but Israel has openly threatened military action against Iranian nuclear sites.  The regional situation requires the resolution of tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iranian American writer Hooman Majd, who was present in the Geneva talks and in similar talks last month, described, in a post on the blog of New Yorker Magazine,  the atmospherics of the recent negotiations:

“The first round of negotiations was set for October 15th and 16th, and the world’s press corps (including more than forty Iranian journalists, flown in from Tehran) dutifully followed the negotiating teams to Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel. The hotel’s opulent lobby was transformed into a reporters’ den, with laptops, iPads, and iPhones strewn about the floors, their cords fighting for empty sockets, and coffee tables stacked with nine-dollar cups of espresso and the remnants of forty-dollar burgers. The Iranians, the women in hijabs and the men bearded and tieless, stood out not just for their appearance, but also for their seemingly endless patience and almost instinctive avoidance of the bar area. Zarif had apparently delivered a proposal in a PowerPoint presentation, but its terms were kept secret. All that the reporters were able to learn, to their dismay, was that the next round of talks would be held in the very same place, under similarly leak-free conditions.

Despite the upbeat attitude among the negotiators, who once again arrived at the Intercontinental on Wednesday, the lack of information led to a rather somber mood among the much-reduced press corps. The hotel’s lobby, to the delight of its silver-haired manager, and perhaps to the negotiators’ as well, had returned to its natural, pristine state. The Iranian journalists were nowhere to be seen. Among the few other reporters in attendance, the main question was whether enduring two days in a delightful city without ever leaving the hotel, while trying to coax out enough details for an article, or even a tweet, was worth the effort, to say nothing of the expense.

By Thursday evening, however—after two sessions of talks that produced no announcements worth more than 140 characters—a remarkable thing happened. John Kerry announced from Jordan that he would arrive in Geneva the next day to join in the talks, and a group of thirty-five Iranian journalists descended on the hotel—hijabs, cameras, and all. They had arrived on a chartered Iran Air jet from Tehran, and the lobby sprang to life.

Journalists, bathed in the wan blue light of dozens of LCD screens, furiously filed stories about the rumors of an impending breakthrough. Surely Kerry, who had been conspicuously absent from the previous round, wouldn’t bother to come to Geneva—abandoning a furious Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem—unless a deal was imminent? Or maybe not. The delegations themselves were tight-lipped. But a peculiar sixth sense had impelled reporters to board planes to Geneva even before Kerry’s itinerary was made public. By mid-day on Friday, the Intercontinental was not only a mess of people and equipment, it had become a holding pen: Swiss police marched in and out of the lobby with dogs; machine-gun-toting officers in sunglasses patrolled the driveway in the rain; and camera crews were relegated to a barricaded area outside. (They were shuffled to a more comfortable area under the portico when the drizzle became a downpour.)

Word began to spread that Kerry’s European counterparts were also en route. Each time one of them arrived, the lobby erupted in shouts of “Fabius!” (Laurent, the French Foreign Minister) or “Hague! Hague!” (William, the Foreign Secretary of Britain), followed by a crush of reporters rushing to get a word, or at least an Instagram, out of the encounter. Then Kerry pulled up in a Cadillac, his arrival signaled by the Swiss security forces with helicopters, sirens, and rooftop snipers”…

On Friday night, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton met for five hours [from 6:30 pm until 11:30 pm] with Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif.  There were rumors/reports that agreement on a deal was imminent.

But then, early on Saturday morning, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with France-Inter radio, that: “nous voulons un accord…mais il y a quelques questions” … “quelques points dans le texte initiale” … Arak “produit beaucoup beaucoup de plutonium…donc nous ne voulons pas que pendant la negotiation les choses continue” … parce que…”nous serons devant un fait accompli, exactement; les iranians eux sont reticent mais pour nous c’est un point absolument dur, cette affaire d’Arak”…

On the question of Iranian uranium enrichment, Fabius said: “20% c’est beaucoup”, “comment redescendre vers 5%” … + “et qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire pour le futur”…

This interview, including archived audio, is posted here

[My translation]: “We want an agreement…but there are some questions…some points in the draft text“. [Reactors like Arak, he said] “produce a lot a lot of plutonium…So we don’t want this to continue during the negotiations… that would give us a fait accompli; the Iranians are reluctant [to stop work on Arak] but for us its an absolutely firm point, this Arak business”

There was also a brief discussion [Fabius did not want to dwell on it] of Israeli PM Netanyahu’s very publicly expressed concerns + of French President Hollande’s forthcoming visit to Israel + Palestine in 10 days or so…

There appeared on Twitter a number of comments arguing that Fabius had disturbed the tacit agreement among the P5+1 that Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak was supposed to be left to Phase 2 of the negotiations [very little is known about the proposals for negotiations, or about Phases]. Why, the commenters asked, was Fabius suddenly causing trouble by trying to move the Arak matter to Phase 1…?

There were also Tweets commenting that the construction of Arak is behind schedule, so it does not represent any kind of imminent proliferation threat and could be left aside for the moment.

An article, originally published on the Arms Control Wonk website, describes the state of affairs concerning the Arak reactor, and argues that “Iran’s counterparts have good reason to make sure that the unfinished heavy water reactor is on a short list of must-resolve issues. Once it is completed, Iran will have an installation which can generate annually in its irradiated fuel between 5 and 10 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium. That’s enough for one nuclear weapon a year. The powers don’t want the IR-40 to make plutonium which Iran then separates. Iran wants a versatile and safe research reactor. These issues could be reconciled by diplomacy”. This article is posted here.

The article also explains that:

“Unlike Iran’s enrichment plants, which are operating routinely, once the IR-40 is completed, operation of the reactor will pose safety concerns. Some of these are related to a raft of technical challenges which Iran must overcome in manufacturing the nuclear fuel for the reactor. In part because of these issues, the IR-40 will not be finished and operated for awhile, most likely not before 2015, and possibly not for as long as Iran remains under international sanctions. This project has been delayed at least four times since it got underway during the 1990s. The most recent delay was revealed to the IAEA in August during a physical inventory verification. A number of items were still not in place, including cooling pumps, instrumentation and control systems, and sufficient uranium fuel.

Iran is behind on this project because it is under sanctions enforced by global export controls on knowhow, materials, and equipment. Without these measures the reactor would probably be operating today. Nearly everywhere else worldwide, research reactor projects like the IR-40 have access to off-the-shelf nuclear-grade items which conform to international safety and quality specifications. Iran is cut off from these sources. As of September Iran had made about 1/5 of the amount of fuel it had predicted in June it would make by then. Iran faces two main challenges here: fabrication of fuel to quality standards, and testing of the fabricated fuel to make sure it will perform safely and as expected”.

Meanwhile, Hooman Majd wrote in his article published on the New Yorker blog Saturday night that:

“By Saturday morning, as talks went into an unscheduled third day, rumors that the French had objected to a proposed deal floated around the lobby of the Intercontinental; soon, news agencies were reporting that the rumors were true, especially after Fabius told a French radio station that his country would not agree to a ‘sucker’s deal’.” [n.b. the French word that Fabius used was “dupe”,  which was artfully translated into “sucker”, a word often used by Israelis who really would object to be so voluntarily tricked”…]

Majd described, in his post on the New Yorker blog, what was at stake in the talks:

“Zarif repeated what he had said before these discussions began—that it ‘wouldn’t be a disaster’ if a deal was not signed this weekend. More talks are scheduled late tonight in Geneva, in a last-ditch attempt to secure a deal while the seven foreign ministers are gathered in one place, though the negotiators (and reporters) appear to be condemned to return to Geneva and the Intercontinental Hotel. But what matters most, really, is the hope harbored by many ordinary Iranians—and, one presumes, ordinary Americans and Israelis, too—that the decade-long nuclear crisis may be coming to an end. Iranians might soon have a chance to enjoy the fruits of an improved economy and better relations with the world, relieved of the crushing burden of sanctions. Americans and Israelis might also be relieved that the possibility of a war will be off the table, and assured that Iran doesn’t have the means to threaten a nuclear showdown”…

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has accepted an invitation to Iran on Monday [November 11], at the same time that a group of IAEA inspectors are expected to be there.

Julian Borger Tweeted this from Geneva tonight:
@julianborger — Zarif tells Iranian media he thinks Tehran will finalise technical deal with IAEA when Amano goes to Tehran on Monday…

Later, US Secretary of State Kerry gave his own press conference, alone. He told journalists that “significant progress” had been made in the Geneva talks, which he said had been conducted “with mutual respect”.

The goal, Kerry said, is to ensure “that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon” [something that Iranian officials insist they have no intention of doing in any case]. “We are closer now, leaving Geneva, than when we came”, Kerry said.

The General Director of Iran’s Fars News Agency, Abas Aslani, Tweeted this from Kerry’s remarks to the press tonight:
@abasinfo — John Kerry: Negotiation are taking place enormously privately. I want to caution everyone from jumping to conclusions

A State Department Spokeswoman travelling with SecKerry Tweeted:
Marie Harf @marieharf – Sec #Kerry: We came to Geneva to narrow differences, and I can tell you without exaggeration that we did that and made significant progress.

And, importantly, this — Mauritanian activist “wedaddy” re-Tweeted Haaretz correspondent in Geneva Barak Ravid’s excerpt from Kerry’s remarks to the press:

weddady @weddady – “@BarakRavid: Kerry: The world wants to know that military action is a last resort not a first resort”

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