It was the first time, but scarcely anybody noticed. The foreign ministers of Iran and the United States convened a bilateral meeting on Nov. 23 in Vienna, Austria.
Javad Zarif and John Kerry had met many times before but only in the presence of others, usually the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who heads the diplomatic team of the group of six countries negotiating with Iran, known as P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). But this time, Kerry and Zarif were alone as they walked into a room in Vienna’s gorgeous palace-cum-hotel the Palais Coburg, which has hosted round after round of intense nuclear negotiations.
In the constantly chirping world of social media and 24-hour news cycles, it is easy to lose perspective. When Iran and P5+1 declared, after meeting for ten rounds of talks (mostly in Vienna but also in Muscat, Oman), that they had failed to reach a comprehensive deal by their self-imposed deadline of Nov. 24, many hardliners in Iran and the West were quick to call this a failure of diplomacy. These masters of self-fulfilling prophecies will now try to derail the talks, which have been extended until July 1, trying on one side to increase sanctions on Iran, and on the other to propel the nuclear program forward without heeding the internationally imposed limitations.
The extension means that the measures agreed upon in the historic Joint Plan of Action deal in Geneva last year, which set in motion a process of normalization between Iran and the U.S., will continue to be honoured. The temporary status quo, agreeable to both parties, will remain in place. Iran’s nuclear program will remain halted and under supervision and, in return, some of its frozen assets will be released so that it can continue to get $700 million of its frozen oil money every month. In the meantime, Iran and P5+1 will continue to negotiate and try to reach a final agreement before the new deadline.
At the time of its signing, many observers said Iran would violate the Joint Plan of Action. Yet Iran has kept up its side of the bargain, which Secretary Kerry emphasized a few times in his press conference in Vienna as he announced the extension of the deadline.
That the continuation of these measures is an achievement for both sides can only be forgotten by those with short memory spans.
A shift in paradigm
Let’s wind the clock back a couple of years. In the spring of 2013, as the Iranian people were being suffocated on one side by the self-styled “crippling” sanctions of the West and the other by their own theocracy, there wasn’t much hope. Isolated, the Iranian economy was collapsing and maverick President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ruled an intimidated society in the aftermath of the bloody suppression of the 2009 democratic movement. Ahmadinejad all but boycotted diplomatic channels, and the threat of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran was also real.
Who would have thought that in the space of a few months, Iran would have a president whose declared aim was to come to a “win–win” understanding with the West and that this would result in one of the most intense diplomatic efforts the world has seen? That a U.S. secretary of state would praise his Iranian counterpart as someone who “worked hard and diligently” and approached “these talks in good faith and with seriousness of purpose”? That Iran’s number one diplomat would wish Americans a happy Thanksgiving?
Who would have thought that Iran and the U.S. would work hard together to convince others of the need for diplomacy and peace? (These others include Canada, which under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has perhaps become the most hawkish and anti-Iran government in the Western world.)
The events of the last 18 months, since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, have brought so much change that it is easy to forget the near past. But we shouldn’t, precisely because we are on the cusp of a historical moment that could be so easily lost.
Holding out hope
Iran’s nuclear crisis has lasted 11 years and has brought much mayhem. The devastating effects of the sanctions and war threats on Iran can’t be overestimated. Far from weakening the theocracy, as some imagined, they have helped to cripple civil society and strengthen the hardline factions around Khamenei who benefit from Iran’s isolation.
There have been many occasions for the resolution of this crisis. One such opportunity occurred in May 2003 but the Bush administration, despite the recommendation of Secretary of State Colin Powell, decided to turn down an Iranian offer for engagement since it didn’t want to “talk to evil.” But it is now the first time that those who favour a negotiated solution are in power in both the White House and Saadabad. “If not now, when?” is the call of the day in this 11th hour of the crisis.
Up to the last few hours of the Vienna talks, the Iranian side was adamant that some kind of deal would be reached by the deadline. The repeated and contradictory leaks about a possible extension were strenuously denied by the Iranians. And yet, around noon on the last day, as a cold rain startled those camping outside the Palais Coburg hoping for going-in or coming-out photos of the foreign ministers, an even colder bucket of water was poured on us all. There was to be an extension of seven months. Both sides said they’ll give each other until March to reach an initial “political agreement” and then three further months to finalize a comprehensive agreement.
Dead tired from days (and, for some, years) of following tight-lipped diplomats around and eating many heavy dishes of wiener schnitzel at the Marriott lobby, most journalists were disappointed. Even more disappointed would be the majority of the Iranian people, who were following the talks like the Americans follow the Super Bowl final, hoping for a deal and lifting of the sanctions.
But, after few hours and some perspective, one can see the announcement as good news.
The final stretch
American, Iranian and European officials and sources that I spoke to, all wishing to remain anonymous, have varying opinions, which are hard to judge since officials can’t discuss the content of the talks. But based on what Zarif and Kerry told reporters and based on my conversations with those reporters who were invited to a late-night briefing with Zarif in the basement of the Palais Coburg, it is easy to see that hope for a deal is very real. Zarif, speaking in a mix of Persian and English, said a “political agreement,” one that would settle all the main issues except for the text of the deal itself, could be reached “in a few weeks and maybe even a few days,” provided there is “political will.” Reporters said he was upbeat in the late-night briefing and, despite exhaustion, didn’t mind appearing in an endless number of selfies.
The technical contours of a deal are not hard to envisage. In a space of five to ten years, sanctions can be lifted while Iran is allowed to keep its uranium enrichment program, even if it is more limited and under the constant inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The hard part, for both sides, is dealing with the hardliners back home trying to get the final technical deal. The policy of Obama is much less popular in the U.S. than that of the Rouhani-Zarif team is in Iran. Both sides need to move quickly. The Republican-led U.S. Congress will start work in January next year but it can’t really pass any derailing measures before February. If by then a political agreement has been reached, Obama could veto any move by Congress and clench a comprehensive deal that would be hard for his successor to unravel. If not then he might not have the political capital to force a Republican Congress to accept a deal with Iran. And with talks crashing down, the hardliners gaining the upper hand in Iran and the possibility of a hawkish president replacing Obama, god knows what misfortune will await the already turbulent region.
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