Iran nuclear: Positive signs despite talks breakdown

Catherine Ashton and Mohammad Javad Zarif after the talks in Geneva (10 November 2013) Few details about what was discussed in Geneva have been revealed

At the end of last week, with excitement mounting, influential foreign ministers rushed post-haste to Geneva.

All the signs were that an important interim deal would be signed between Iran and the P5+1 - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany.

However, at the last moment somebody applied the brakes. No deal could be reached.

There was only agreement to meet again, at a lower level, on 20 November.

Reality check

Amidst the rapid euphoria and almost instantaneous gloom of the news cycle, the Iran nuclear talks moved from success to failure in the blink of an eye.

The setback - if that is really what it was - serves, though, as a reality check: underscoring both the nature of the deal that was being discussed and the raft of problems militating against progress.

Start Quote

Some of the Europeans were concerned that Washington was moving forward at a pace with which they were not comfortable”

End Quote Mark Hibbs Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

So who cried foul? The finger-pointing has highlighted two possible culprits: France, and the Iranians themselves.

Few details of the talks have been revealed - itself probably a good thing if there is to be any agreement.

The French, it seems, baulked at the last moment. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was concerned about two issues: continued construction of Iran's heavy-water reactor at Arak that might eventually give it a plutonium route to a bomb, and the fate of the stock of 20%-enriched uranium that Tehran has already accumulated.

France has generally taken a tough line with Tehran. And many commentators have also pointed to the developing commercial ties - especially in the military sector - between Paris and the Gulf.

Washington's Gulf Arab allies are as alarmed as Israel at the possibility of what they might see as a poor or weak deal with Tehran, so - some of the pundits suggest - France is seeking to mark out its position from the other Western players.

That said, France's views on Iran's nuclear programme have been consistent, its approach to these talks nicely summed up by the comment from Mr Fabius himself suggesting that Paris was "neither isolated nor simply following along" in the negotiations.

Breakneck pace

More generally - and not surprisingly - there has been a denial that the Western camp has been divided, not least from the US Secretary of State John Kerry himself.

Speaking in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, Mr Kerry noted that France was as much on board as the other Western players.

It was Iran, he said, that "couldn't take it at that particular moment".

John Kerry The finger-pointing has highlighted two possible culprits

Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that in his view that might be a diplomatic way of minimising the tensions in the Western camp.

However, he believes the outcome in Geneva was by no means a fiasco.

Not only the French, but others in the Western camp, were uneasy at the sudden breakneck pace of the talks, Mr Hibbs says.

As he puts it: "Some of the Europeans were concerned that Washington was moving forward at a pace with which they were not comfortable."

In his view, the additional 10 days of reflection before the various parties meet again could be very helpful.

'More time'

Mr Hibbs also argues that the separate agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) just announced in Tehran and confirmed in Vienna - on a framework through which to tackle concerns about Iran's past nuclear activities - is also a positive sign.

If there is to be any final agreement between Iran and the P5+1, then not only must the uncertainties of the past be clarified, but a new spirit of co-operation must be established between Iran and the UN's nuclear watchdog.

The new deal identifies five specific areas where progress is to be made over the next three months - so there is a built-in mechanism to determine if Iran is playing ball.

The delay in the Geneva talks on reaching an interim deal - one that will build confidence and put "more time on the clock" in Secretary Kerry's words - is thus in Mr Hibbs' view no disaster.

"We should all remember that we are currently in a place in negotiations with Tehran where we have never been before!" he notes.

The mood music, Mr Hibbs clearly believes, should still be seen as positive.

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