Iran Geneva talks: whose interpretation will triumph?
Was the meeting in Geneva filled with “meandering” small talk? Or did the discussions between world powers and Iran begin work on an intricately woven carpet, that in time, would yield an “elegant and durable” outcome?
The two views, the first voiced by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the second by chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, say much about how the two foes approached Saturday’s meeting to resolve Iran’s long-running nuclear row with the West.
It may also indicate prospects for a deal between officials from the “Great Satan” and “Axis of Evil”, who have spent so long without diplomatic ties that they have forgotten what makes the other one tick — while trust has all but vanished.
Perhaps the result of Saturday’s meeting (Iran, it was announced, did not give a clear answer to demands by world powers) was clear before officials sat round the table.
Those who watched the scene in Geneva saw U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns enter with a demeanour that did little to suggest a man who really wanted to be there.
If history was on his mind, he had little reason to be encouraged. Talks to try to get Iran to halt the most sensitive part of nuclear work, uranium enrichment, have gone nowhere since Tehran tore up a previous suspension deal with the European Union in 2005. The United States saw this as a sign Tehran was bent on producing a nuclear bomb, despite Iran’s insistence that it was just exercising its right to develop the technology needed to make electricity.
The Iranians also offered little reassurance before Jalili sat down in front of the six world powers and their representative, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Shortly before discussions began, an official told Reuters bluntly: “Any kind of suspension or freeze is out of the question.”
The only person by this late stage who showed any visible enthusiasm was a Swiss passerby, who when asked why all the cameras were crowding outside the talks venue, was told they were waiting for Brad Pitt. Out came the pocket camera ready for the Hollywood star, until a sheepish television producer admitted the real reason. The bystander trudged off.
Everything had seemed so much more upbeat even hours earlier. A British newspaper had reported Washington would soon announce plans to open a low-level diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in almost 30 years. Iran said it would consider such an idea, and was also ready for direct flights. Days earlier, Iranian newspapers were filled with debate, involving some high-level politicians, about how Iran should respond to the nuclear, trade and other incentives offered by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Such unprecedented debate surely signalled a change of heart?
And so we come to the bit where neither side seems able to read the other.
What, from the U.S. side, may have been a bid to show what Iran could win from a concession, Iranians — as subsequent newspaper editorials make clear — saw as a pitifully small gesture for stopping a programme that is a symbol for many of them as a point of national pride and regional status.
Likewise, the Iranian debate that became so public, and which some in the West saw as a signal of a soul-searching, perhaps indicated the fractious nature of the Iranian leadership but said less about its willingness to switch direction.
That, say diplomats and analysts, is because it is difficult to determine whether the debate went to the heart of Iran’s leadership. Ultimate decision-making may lie with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei but he tends to look for consensus, they say. Iran’s multi-layered structure (including a national security body, a council to mediate between parliament and a constitutional watchdog, plus a clerical assembly that technically has the power throw out the supreme leader) means it is not always easy to determine the seriousness of any discussion when it does finally emerge in public.
And even if debate does go deep, there are powerful checks on any change in policy when the aim is to reach a common view among such hydra-like bodies, not to mention securing the backing of a handful of powerful politicians who have helped guide the country since the 1979 revolution.
This then helps makes sense of Jalili’s comment to an Iranian reporter, cited by the daily Etemad-e Melli, as he left Saturday’s talks: “Diplomacy is like a Iranian carpet that progresses by the millimetre. Diplomacy is also elegant and exquisite and, God willing, the outcome is beautiful, elegant and durable.”
Perhaps it’s also understandable why Jalili’s approach in Geneva did not go down well with the straight-talking U.S. administration and looked more like time wasting. As Rice put it on Monday: “I understand it was at times meandering.”
When diplomatic ties have been cut for three decades and a “wall of mistrust” has been built up — as one moderate Iranian president once put it — a deal may not come swiftly.