Memo From Geneva: Iran Nuclear Deal in the Balance

Of croissants and centrifuges, and the struggle to seal a deal

  • Share
  • Read Later
Denis Balibouse / REUTERS

Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Geneva International airport in Geneva November 23, 2013.

GENEVA — A camouflaged armored personal carrier was parked outside the InterContinental hotel here on Saturday. It was a fitting symbol for the strange dissonance inside the modernist luxury hotel, now occupied by sullen journalists, stern security men and elite diplomats negotiating over the fate of Iran’s outlaw nuclear program.

After stealing a few hours’ sleep on an overnight flight from Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry landed here around 8am and headed straight to the Intercontinental hotel for meetings with U.S. officials who have been talking to the Iranians since Wednesday, along with the fellow foreign ministers swooping in to help close a deal with Tehran.

Precious little hard news is on offer to the dozens of somewhat desperate-seeming journalists here. Meetings begin and they end, out of sight of the media; reporters are left to speculate about their duration while nibbling on exquisite but wildly overpriced croissants. Ministers march swiftly through the lobby without stopping to talk. Now comes French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, rubbing his bald pate as he hustles in from the blustery cold. Now an entourage of Chinese officials, perhaps the only Asians to be found. A woman briefs to a rapt gaggle of journalists, but she appears to be speaking Russian. A group of Israelis speaking loud Hebrew in the bar seems to be having more fun than some reserved Iranian reporters keeping to themselves across the lobby.

But there were hopeful signs of progress towards a deal. Before departing Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the Iran talks “reached their final moment.” Britain’s foreign minister told reporters here the differences are narrowing. And in a small blessing for the would-be dealmakers, an Israeli reporter noted, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not inveigh against negotiations for an afternoon due to the Jewish holy day.

And Kerry’s presence itself seemed quite promising. Would the Secretary of State cross the Atlantic only to come away empty-handed? Well, maybe: Kerry swooped into the last round of talks here earlier this month, to no avail. Perhaps it’s fair to assume he wouldn’t risk coming away empty-handed a second time. Or maybe the peripatetic diplomat simply can’t stay away from the historic action. (“Tell me,” pleads one foreign reporter. “Has Kerry come because there is a deal? Or because he is needed to complete a deal?”)

Kerry’s role is intriguing, but the stakes are massive for President Barack Obama, a president desperately in search of a victory at home or abroad. Any deal struck here would only be in force only for six months—halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in return for modest relief of international sanctions. But it would set the parameters for a larger deal, likely signaling that Iran will be allowed to continue enriching uranium at low levels under strict international inspections.

Such a deal would have been almost unthinkable in the mid 2000s, when the United Nations was demanding that Iran stop its enrichment program entirely and George W. Bush insisted that Iran “must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing” (activities which Tehran insists are for peaceful purposes only).

And it will produce cries that Obama’s eagerness—for a political win; for a legacy; for avoiding war—has seduced him into a fool’s bargain. “Obama is in so much of a rush to have a deal with Iran,” the influential Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal tells Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “He wants anything.”

That’s a view shared not only in Saudi Arabia but also in Israel,and within the U.S. Congress, and not just among Republicans. John Kerry may fly out of Geneva triumphant, with a historic deal in hand. But for Barack Obama, the fight to defend it will have just begun.

This post has been updated.