by Ali Hashem for Al-Monitor — Beirut Center for Middle East Studies– As journalists were preparing July 9 for the possible good news that a nuclear deal had been reached, three foreign ministers turned the situation upside down. “The last 100 meters of the marathon are the hardest,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. US Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear there was progress but insisted that the talks were “not open-ended,” adding that US President Barack Obama told him his negotiating team could not stay there forever. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “We’re working hard, but not rushed, to get the job done. Mark my words: You can’t change horses in the middle of a stream.”
As the last sentence by Zarif stirred controversy, reporters started searching for the right meaning of the idiom the Iranian minister used. The common understanding was that something important changed in the middle of the talks, something that risks the whole process. A senior Iranian source told Al-Monitor, “What happened is that the Western parties have been shifting and hardening positions since Wednesday [July 8] night.” He added, “The main problem was that they needed much [more] time to negotiate among themselves than negotiating with Iran, they had several meetings together to agree on their red lines, their red lines differ from one country to another, and they want Iran to take into consideration their differences.”
The main problem hindering the talks is the UN Security Council resolution that should be issued after the announcement of the deal. The resolution contains details over the lifting of sanctions and the restrictions to be applied to Iran during the coming years and will consist of several pages and annexes. Both parties have so far failed in reaching a consensus over the wording, and there are yet points to be agreed on before it can be finalized.
A Western diplomat told Al-Monitor that the situation changed in the past two days. “Things have changed in Washington, not in Vienna,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said, “There’s a mounting pressure from lobbies opposed to the deal; they used all possible means to convince President Obama to interfere and advise his team not to rush for a deal. He gave them new instructions.” The diplomat added, “Days ago the deal was too big to fail; now, it’s up to Iran to take it or leave it. Only days ago the US had a different approach, and some partners within the P5+1 were blaming them for being so easy with the Iranian side.”
The Iranian side became more skeptical over whether a deal might be reached if the same mentality continued to dominate the talks. A senior Iranian official suggested that the United States should make serious decisions or else the deal would be in danger. “I think the United States needs to make serious decisions. I believe the West needs to make serious decisions. Iran has made its decision, to come and negotiate,” he said. “If you look at what has been done, if you look at the areas that have been covered, all indicate that Iran has made that commitment. What is lacking is exactly the political decision that is needed on the other side to abandon this idea that through coercion and pressure you can achieve anything.”
Several deadlines were missed since June 30 to reach a deal. On July 7, the EU’s Federica Moghirini said negotiators might need a couple more days, while on July 10 a senior US State Department official was quoted as saying, “To allow for the additional time to negotiate, we are taking the necessary technical steps for the measures of the Joint Plan of Action to remain in place through July 13.” This was, in other words, a clear announcement that talks have been extended until July 13.
Zarif, while on the balcony of his presidential suite at Palais Coburg, told journalists who asked him how long he will take, “[There is] no deadline. We don’t have one. I want a good agreement.” Zarif was accompanied by his predecessor, Ali Akbar Salehi, who is a main member of his negotiating team as the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. Salehi, who holds a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from MIT, along with Zarif waved to journalists who wanted to know if they are going to stay for the weekend in Vienna. As both Iranian officials turned to enter their suite, Moghirini showed up on her balcony and the same round of questions started, with no answer from the Italian. She only smiled and waved. Many were waiting to see if Kerry was going to make a balcony appearance, but he didn’t; rather, he had a walk in the garden downstairs.
Kerry did show some positivity in his remarks, “We’ve had meetings since early this morning. We have a couple of different lines of discussion that are going on right now, but I think it’s safe to say that we have made progress today. The atmosphere is very constructive. We still have a couple of very difficult issues, and we’ll be sitting down to discuss those in the very near term — this evening and into tomorrow. But I think we have resolved some of the things that were outstanding and we’ve made some progress.”
By the end of the day, I asked an Iranian diplomat if the situation was still as tense as the past few days, and he said, “Things are quite much [more] positive than before. We had some progress; things are getting better.”