GENEVA: The marathon nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva last week faltered because of fundamental differences — not because the French are spoilers. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters upon arriving in Geneva that “nothing is settled” and then was blamed for imposing new conditions that torpedoed an all-but-written settlement that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons. The bottom line: the six major powers finally agreed on a text, which Iran rejected, US Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed in comments in the United Arab Emirates on Monday.

The disappointing end to the talks showed that solving the so-far intractable nuclear issue will require more than the good feelings and conciliatory rhetoric brought in by the election last June of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The mix of Iran reining in its nuclear work and the United States and its allies letting go of sanctions that pressure Iran by devastating its economy requires sacrifices neither side is yet willing to make. The problem is that the sacrifices required are not cosmetic but go to the heart of each side’s stance in the conflict over fears Iran seeks the bomb. These are positions that have fallen into place over years in a long-running confrontation that is a diplomatic equivalent of trench warfare. With such encrusted battle lines, it is profoundly difficult to take a first step towards a settlement.

From Thursday to Saturday last week, six major powers and Iran aimed for and hoped for a breakthrough in the decade-long face-off. The talks followed a sort of Iranian spring ushered in by Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that raised hopes a nuclear dealwas now possible.

Hopes soared when it was announced Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry would fly in Friday to attend the talks, which had been held at the political directors level, notwithstanding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s position as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. France, Germany, Britain and Russia then joined the United States and sent their foreign ministers; China sent a deputy foreign minister.

The thinking in Geneva was that these big guns would not be coming unless the fix was in, and a breakthrough agreement close at hand.

This turned out not to be the case. US officials stressed early on that Kerry was coming to “help narrow the differences” that existed, something he was said to be good at. And then of course France’s Fabius arrived. He revealed specifics about the talks which all sides had carefully kept from journalists. Fabius said not enough was being done about stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is closer to weapon-grade of over 90 percent, than the 3.5 percent enriched uranium used for civilian power reactors. Uranium enrichment proceeds along an exponential curve rather than a straight line so that 20 percent enriched is in fact over 80 percent of the way to weapon-grade. Some plans call for this medium-enriched uranium to be shipped out of the country, but Iran reportedly rejects this.

Fabius also made public France’s worries that Iran was not being kept from working on the Arak reactor, which would be able to produce plutonium, which like uranium is a potential atom bomb material. Finally, the French felt not enough was being said about whether Iran could or could not enrich once the crisis was settled.

When the French publicly insisted these issues be settled, it grew harder to put together a package which the Iranians would accept. The US approach had been to take a first step, lasting some six months, designed to stop the Iranians from expanding their program even as they continued it. This “freeze” would be followed by six months of working toward a comprehensive, final agreement that would deal fully with all issues and nail down what the Iranian program would look like for the future. But Iran would get some sanctions relief in a first phase. Israel and France felt the first phase would let Iran off the hook, and ensure that the second, final phase was not effective. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu complained that Iran was getting “the deal of the century.”

The Saturday meetings with the foreign ministers stretched into the evening and kept going past midnight into Sunday morning. Kerry said at his closing press conference in those early Sunday hours: “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now” to an agreement. He also noted: “Each day that you don’t have an agreement Iran will continue to enrich” and expand its program.

Time is clearly of the essence, especially since hardliners on both the Iranian and American sides will be urging their countries’ to take actions. American lawmakers are threatening increased sanctions against Iran  and Iranian hard liners want to increase their nation’s nuclear capabilities. These could doom the fragile negotiations to failure. That’s why Kerry said last week’s talks weren’t a failure. We are closer, but time is running out.

Talks resume in Geneva November 20 at the senior foreign ministry level.


  • Don Bacon

    Who writes BD headlines?

    Iranians Balked At Geneva Nuke Talks; West Stood United

    And then Adler’s article explains how France torpedoed the impending agreement at the end of the week. France’s Fabius breezed in on Friday and

    When the French publicly insisted these issues be settled, it grew harder to put together a package which the Iranians would accept.

    Which later caused Iran’s negotiator Zarif to tweet:–

    No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday.But it can further erode confidence

  • jack

    Sounds like our government (president, congress, senate) unable to meet a solution.

    • Wes

      When you have one side (Iran, the Republicans) who are sneakily determined to have it their way, then of course there is no solution.

  • Ed Yandek

    20% enrichment is well beyond what is needed to produce electricity, which is what Iran states is their (public) purpose for a program. So, obviously their real intent, was and still is, a weapons track. If they are unwilling to accept a limitation of 5% enrichment and sequestering or removal of their 20%enriched stockpiles, then the sanctions should remain indefinitely, and the world still has an issue with Iran breaking out at some point in the future to full weapons grade material.

    • Don Bacon

      Iran required up to 20% for the Tehran Research Reactor which produced medical anti-cancer isotopes. Iran was willing to have this enrichment done elsewhere, but Obama killed a plan in 2010, one he had previously endorsed, to have the higher enrichment done via an Iran-Turkey-Brazil agreement.

      Reportedly Iran now says that it has enough higher enriched uranium and may be willing to deal. In any case it is all under IAEA surveillance under the NPT. The IAEA has consistently reported quarterly that Iran is not diverting uranium.

      • Ed Yandek

        Hi, Don. I take your point, but I am not concerned about a small amount of enriched material for medical use. Although even there, they can buy medical isotopes as do major hospitals if that were the only issue. What I am concernced about is many thousands of spinning centerfuges that are geared to make much more than is needed for cancer therapy…..
        If this is the only issue, then Iran should revive their past proposal. Or, buy the medical isotopes from the US or Europe. This should not be the sticking point. My guess is they still want a nuclear tip of the spear…..

        • Don Bacon

          So you change the subject, from 20% to thousands of centrifuges. Iran has plans to build 16 nuclear power plants and needs enriched uranium to power them.

          Being a sovereign country Iran has a sovereign right to enrich uranium to any level it pleases. Iran voluntarily signed the NPT, and so its declared nuclear facilities are under IAEA surveillance to ensure non-deviation of fuel to weapons programs. The IAEA has consistently reported that Iran is in full compliance with the NPT.

  • Don Bacon

    The Guardian, Nov 11, 2013
    Last-minute rethink stalled deal on nuclear Iran

    A meeting in a Geneva hotel room between the US secretary of state and his French counterpart led to an 11th-hour toughening of the west’s position on Iran’s nuclear programme that proved unacceptable to Iranian negotiators, say western officials.

    John Kerry’s Saturday-night meeting with Laurent Fabius was a late turning point in three days of intense talks among foreign ministers that resulted only in a decision to resume negotiations at a lower level in Geneva next week.

    In the discussion in the US secretary of state’s room at the Geneva InterContinental, Fabius insisted on two key points in the drafting of an interim agreement with Iran: there should be no guarantees in the preamble about the country’s right to enrich uranium; and work would have to stop on a heavy-water nuclear reactor. Iran is building the Arak reactor, capable of producing plutonium, about 130 miles south-west of Tehran.

    It’s a bogus issue, because Arak like other Iran nuclear facilities when operational would be under IAEA surveillance. Reactors of this type produce large amounts of plutonium that can be reprocessed into a nuclear weapon. However, even those who accuse Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon readily admit that Iran does not have the equipment or technology required for reprocessing spent fuel from this reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. Iran explains that this reactor is meant to take over for the aging Tehran Research Reactor in production of radioactive isotopes for medical applications. IAEA monitoring of the reactor would be to confirm this process and to track the materials produced as they are shipped to hospitals for use in imaging and treatment.

  • Don Bacon

    What’s with France? There are reasons why France is pro-Israel, but there is also the Saudi Arabia factor.

    al Bawaba, Oct 3, 2013

    France has been the first country to sign government to government agreement on nuclear and energy with Saudi Arabia [a staunch enemy of Iran.]

    French companies AREVA and EDF hosted a number of Saudi business and industry representatives at their Second Suppliers Day event held in Jeddah on Tuesday [Oct 1] to take part in the framework of the sustainable energy program suggested by King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) focused on nuclear and renewable energy sources.

    Some 200 participants from local companies attended, including Dr. Mohieden Garwan, KA-CARE, French Ambassador to KSA Bertrand Besancenot, representatives of Saudi industry, along with Tarek Choho, AREVA Chief Commercial Officer and Mrs. Valerie Levkov, EDF VP New Nuclear Energy. The suppliers’ day initiative aimed at providing local industry with a platform for exposure, knowledge sharing, and networking.

  • warcriminalsrus

    How is it that a war criminal and racist psychopath (netanyahoo) who represents about 4 million jews in israel, dictatate american foreign policy. Evil!