What Happens in Geneva, Stays in Geneva: Negotiating Towards a Non-Nuclear Iran

What Happens in Geneva, Stays in Geneva: Negotiating Towards a Non-Nuclear Iran


Late Sunday night, after a long day of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (a group consisting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), Secretary of State John Kerry flew out of Geneva and headed to the United Arab Emirates for the next stop on his travels around the Middle East. Despite early signs suggesting that this last round of negotiations had come closer to reaching a deal than any others, the flight was a sobering one for Secretary Kerry as he was forced to return empty handed after a round of negotiations aimed at easing sanctions and increasing accountability for Iran’s nuclear program fell through. The next forty-eight hours were a whirlwind of finger pointing and accusations, with all parties involved disagreeing over who was to blame for the lack of an international agrement. Since then, however, the dust has begun to settle and it’s both possible and appropriate to step back and take a look at what happened, what went wrong, and what hurdles lie ahead.

The first story to emerge after Secretary Kerry left Geneva without reaching an agreement with Iran was that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius broke rank with the rest of the P5+1 group and refused to support the proposed agreement which had been spearheaded by Secretary Kerry and American negotiators. In a public press statement, Fabius stated “One wants a deal … but not a sucker’s deal”. In doing so, he broke an unwritten role of the P5+1 negotiating group, and spoke out against the preliminary agreement even though the French had initially supported it according to sources close to the diplomats who were involved with the marathon round of negotiations.

International news outlets quickly picked up on the French Foreign Minister’s statements, and it was widely reported that French opposition to the deal – in particular the belief that the terms of the accord we`re too easy on Iran – was what caused the latest round of negotiations to fall through. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), one of many House and Senate members who currently oppose reducing sanctions on Iran, tweeted his support for France’s position.

By Monday however, the story appeared to have changed. In a speech delivered alongside UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Secretary Kerry asserted that the most recent round of negotiations fell through, not because of French opposition, but because of Iranian intransigency. He stated “The French signed off on it; we signed off on it. There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it.”

Taken at its face value, this comment as well as others made by Secretary Kerry, would shift the onus of blame squarely onto the shoulders of the Iranian government and its negotiators. However, there seems to be a rather compelling argument that Mr. Kerry’s statements, along with his public assurances of a united negotiating front, should be taken at anything but face value.

Iran was the first to reject Secretary Kerry’s revisionist interpretation of what occurred in Geneva. In a series of tweets, the Iranian foreign minister stated:

“Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of the U.S. draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning? No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6 PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday. But it can further erode confidence. We are committed to constructive engagement. Interaction on equal footing is key to achieve shared objectives.”

A source close to Russian negotiators confirmed what was said by Iranian officials, stating that Kerry’s comments “simplifies extremely and even distorts the essence of what happened in Geneva”. The American-prepared draft was amenable to the Iranian negotiators, but since P5+1 negotiations operate via consensus, it was French hesitation that prevented a final agreement from coming to be.


Why The French?

While it seems to be the case that the French were the reason negotiations fell through, it remains unclear as to why they criticized the agreement before details were even finalized. Israeli leaders, who had criticized the possibility of Iran being allowed to enrich uranium, were quick to applaud France and Prime Minister Hollande for standing up for Israel and working to prevent what they’ve called the “deal of the century for Iran”. Despite this Israeli endorsement of France’s action, it’s dubious at best that a bona-fide concern for Israel’s security was what precipitated France’s very public admonition of the proposed agreement.

Alireza Nader, author of Iran after the Bomb and an international policy analyst at Rand Corp., said that he believes France may be acting out of a desire to curry favor with Saudi Arabia and other nations within the Gulf Cooperation Coalition who are fearful of Iran’s nuclear development program and Iran’s growing power within the region. Barbara Slazin of the Middle East Institute and the Atlantic Council reported that France recently signed a billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia and that France’s arms trade would likely benefit from a situation in which Gulf states are appreciative of France’s role in the negotiation process. While increasing defense contracts may have been a particular goal for French negotiators, a general strengthening of their position in the region and their ties with Gulf states was likely on the mind of the French government. (It’s worth noting that the United States recently signed a defense deal worth roughly sixty billion dollars with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.)

The explanation offered up by Nader and Slazin is far from the only one which helps put France’s actions into perspective. Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argued that France balked and spoke out against the proposed terms of the agreement for reasons other than it’s economic ties to Saudi Arabia. He noted that the French position may very well reflect the fact that France “hates signing on the dotted line anything that appears to have been produced by Americans.” Standing up to the Americans may provide a brief boost for President Hollande’s government which has been embattled by a number of domestic shortcomings as of late. Heisbourg adds that, all things considered, France’s position isn’t all that surprising since France has been rather firm in it’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions since the government of Jacques Chirac in the 1990s.


Terms of the Deal

While the exact provisions of an agreement (if they’ve even been hammered out) remain unclear, reports from negotiators as well as statements made by politicians and public figures from all countries involved have shed light on the major aspects of the deal. According to reports from diplomats in Geneva, the agreement would have allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the Arak IR-40 heavy water site (used to enrich plutonium by the use of deuterium oxide or “heavy water”) and the Gachin uranium mine. In return for opening up these sites to international inspectors, Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent. This level which is formally referred to as low-enriched uranium (LEU) is enough to use for nuclear energy but not weapons production. Iran’s highest level of enrichment currently is 20%, which is far below the 90% enrichment level which is needed for the highly enriched uranium (HEU) which is used in the weapons production process. While the details concerning inspections and low-level enrichment appear to be rather straightforward, there are still other issues that need to be ironed out and details which must be agreed upon before any final deal (or even an interim one) is reached.

One of the most contentious issues that diplomats have yet to resolve is whether or not any agreement should acknowledge an Iranian “right” to enrich uranium. While diplomats within the Obama administration, as well as from the other P5+1 nations, have indicated their willingness to allow Iran to enrich uranium as part of a comprehensive agreement, all have fallen short of acknowledging that Iran has a “right” to enrich uranium. This position stands in stark contrast to the position held by Iran’s senior negotiator Abbas Araqchi who has echoed the arguments made by other Iranian leaders that any agreement with Western powers must include a stipulation that Iran has an undeniable right to enrich uranium in much the same way that the United States, France, and other nuclear powers do. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zariff has advanced the argument that Iran has a right to enrich uranium since it’s signed on to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Nuclear Weapons (NPT) whereas Israel, a state widely suspected of possessing nuclear weapons, has not signed the treaty  yet goes unpunished for it’s covert weapons program.


Other Opposition

Whatever role France played in preventing a deal from being reached during the most recent round of negotiations, it’s clear that France is far from the only nation opposed to a deal that would grant Iran even the most limited nuclear rights. Israel has been vociferously outspoken against any deal which would allow Iran any sort of enrichment capabilities. While Israel, Saudi Arabia, other Sunni majority states, and France all have their reservations about an agreement, it appears as if some of the strongest opposition might come from home rather than abroad.

On Wednesday, Kerry met with members of the Senate Banking Committee in an effort to persuade lawmakers not to continue going forward with drafting a set of tougher sanctions on Iran. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has publicly called for the bill’s passage and has announced his support for passing increased sanctions before the Senate recesses for Thanksgiving. His statements were echoed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) who took to NBC’s “Meet The Press” to blast the Obama administration for “dealing away our leverage”. Sen. Corker is the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

With the opposition to the deal being given a chance to restock their ammunition ahead of November 20th, the date at which negotiations are set to resume, Kerry hasn’t been the only member of the Obama administration to take part in the charm offensive aimed at persuading lawmakers  to hold off on tougher sanctions. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) who has taken the lead in drafting new sanctions, received a call from President Obama himself asking him to hold off on new sanctions. Vice President Biden, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have also joined Mr. Kerry in lobbying lawmakers. The administration placed a special focus on members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Banking Committee.

A phone call between President Obama and President Rouhani in early October marked the first time the presidents of both nations had spoken to one another in over thirty years. Since then, President Obama’s administration has gone to great lengths to maintain a conciliatory tone with Iran. It appears now more than ever that this effort is at the precipice of bearing fruit as negotiators continue to move closer to a solution. The next round of negotiations are schedule to begin on November 20th in Geneva. Secretary Kerry has a long road ahead of, but it appears as if the finish line is finally in sight.

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