Sense of history as Iran nuclear talks go to the wire

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi at the nuclear talks in Lausanne (30 March 2015) Image copyright AFP

In a world where all too many conflicts are in search of solution there is a palpable sense history could be made here.

If a framework for an Iranian nuclear deal is agreed this week in this serene Swiss setting of Lausanne, it could pave the way for one of the most significant, but most sensitive, accords in decades.

"Since World War Two, there has been no precedent for multilateral diplomacy resolving a complex conundrum in a non-zero sum fashion without a bullet fired," says Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group.

But because the history of relations between Iran and the West is still so incendiary there is still no certainty that, even with a framework, a final accord would be drafted by the end of June.

Political dividend

A highly technical document to end a 12-year stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme is also profoundly political.

It is a breakthrough that could ease, but not erase, the hostility and mistrust that have darkened relations between Tehran and Washington since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the American hostage crisis that followed.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The negotiations in Lausanne intensified as Tuesday's deadline approached

A political dividend "will be what the players make of it," adds Mr Vaez. "The history of Iran's relations with the West is replete with missed opportunities."

US Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be acutely aware of the importance of turning at least one page on one of America's most poisoned relationships.

"He really hopes he can go to Iran someday," remarks one American observer at these talks.

Five other major powers negotiating this landmark deal also hope an accord will help remove obstacles in their own dealings with Iran.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The two negotiating teams have accused each other of making unrealistic demands

But negotiators are also mindful of a history of accusations that Iran previously hid key elements of its nuclear programme.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most vociferous sceptics, recently addressed the US Congress. he invoked the history of World War One, and actions of wartime leaders which tragically paved the way to the Holocaust.

EU foreign policy chief Federico Mogherini, whose predecessor Catherine Ashton was earlier credited with moving talks forward, said a deal has to "guarantee that Iran has no nuclear weapons and cannot develop nuclear weapons, but can still develop a civil nuclear programme".

Turning the page

Some Iranians reach back to another history and look to turn its page in the gilded halls of Lausanne's Beau-Rivage Palace hotel.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iranians are watching for developments in Lausanne, hoping for an end to crippling sanctions

"From 1813 on, Iran's interaction with world powers has largely been one of continuous defeats," says Trita Parsi, founder and president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council.

"This could be the first time in 200 years that, without a war, Iran would emerge from a conflict without losing."

Mr Parsi argues that Iran's hardliners who remain deeply suspicious of the West, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, could find ways to hail it as their success.

On social media there is already an excited buzz among Iranians - even calls for a Nobel Peace Prize for Mr Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif if they clinch the deal.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iranian officials have said that a deal is possible, but that some issues are still to be resolved

For many Iranians, what matters just as much are their very own personal histories of families divided and dispersed across a vast global diaspora.

"My friends and family are calling me saying: 'Tell Mr Zarif, just do it,'" exclaims one Iranian journalist covering the Lausanne talks.

Like many Iranians, she expresses hope a nuclear deal will lift punishing sanctions and also help bring a greater openness to reassure many Iranians it is safe to go home.

Slow progress

But there is caution, too, over whether Iran's moment has come.

"Every time I come to cover the talks, I'm told it's important to be here because history will be made," remarks Mohammad Eslami, editor and columnist at Iran's Khorasan newspaper. "Maybe this time will be different."

Even the pattern of these negotiations underlines how much has been slowly but steadily changing.

In nuclear talks in 2013 in the Kazakh city of Almaty, US diplomats were at pains to emphasise there were no one-on-one meetings with Iranians.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have backed its negotiators

The election of centrist President Hassan Rouhani later that year helped change the personal chemistry and political choreography of this protracted process.

Now, Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif have established a personal rapport, even though it is underlined that discussions focus on nuclear issues, not other major crises engulfing the Middle East.

Some hope a deal would open a channel for greater co-operation with Iran at a time when tensions between the country and powerful Gulf Arab states are sharpening over crises everywhere from Iraq to Syria and Yemen. Others worry Iran's new international standing would embolden it.

"Iran and the West will not become best friends," points out Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council. "But they will move from enemies to rivals, with the possibility of resolving issues through diplomats."

Choreography

At this 11th hour, before what is a self-imposed deadline of late March, there are still gaps to close on major issues, including when to lift which sanctions, and what nuclear research and development Iran can pursue.

And then there is the choreography of any major announcement.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The UN's headquarters in Geneva is being readied for an announcement of a preliminary deal

The Americans need a document with enough detail to help stem opposition in Congress which convenes on 14 April with Iran on the agenda.

The Iranians argue too much detail will provide ammunition to their critics at home who could try to scupper the drafting of the final deal.

And they have also signalled they want any announcement this week made in Geneva, a UN headquarters, and not in Lausanne, which already has its place in history with the 1923 treaty which ended the Ottoman Empire. And the US Congress refused to ratify it.

Such is the power of history that, more than a century on, it still resonates.

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