Iran Geneva talks: whose interpretation will triumph?

July 29, 2008

EU foreign policy chief Solana shakes hand with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Jalili before a meeting on nuclear issues in Geneva.REUTERS/Denis BalibouseWas 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 demaUS Undersecretary of State Burns sits before a meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Jalili and EU foreign policy chief Solana on nuclear issues in Geneva.REUTERS/Denis Balibousends 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.Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at ceremony to mark death anniversary of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

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.

10 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“…a deal may not come swifty.” That is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I think the author is totally naive. It is clear that the Iranians have employed a “rug seller” mentality during the years of negotiations. They’re stalling for time…playing the Europeans as chumps (which is what they are), while busily proceeding with their nuclear program, which by all evidence, is not for peaceful purposes. If it were for peaceful purposes only, they would have been wise to accept the enriched uranium already offered to them. The whole situation is ludicrous. Don’t be surprised when Iran tests its first nuclear bomb. Then the Straits of Hormuz and all of the military bases in the Middle East (not to mention all of Israel) while be subject to the whims of these looneys.

Posted by john | Report as abusive

I would like to say as an American citizen that in my personal opinion; Iran has their best leader in many years, he has a personality and is open to debate. I am also a veteran of the US Army and I know about the tensions in the middle east. The Arab countries main problem with my country (US) is ongoing and has mainly to do with our support for Israel. I think that the Iranians should have the open right to develop nuclear power. The only thing that is stopping this and causing all these problems is that Israel thinks they are going to develop nuclear weapons and they are in fear of getting bombed. I say it is the 21st century, and we have to at least “try” to trust Iran. If we (US) and many of our allies have the right to develop nuclear power for energy, then why shouldn’t another country like Iran have that same right? This is why the world is so off balance, we need to have a peaceful world, we need to respect other countries beliefs in religion and politics. If we have an open mind, and continue more talks with Iran, the world could be a better place! The thing is, if we don’t give them the chance, then how will we ever know? I think we were wrong about Iraq and their supposed weapons of mass destruction, and “maybe” we are also wrong about Iran! They have some great citizens there in Iran, they are not all terrorists! I would love to see a great US and Iranian friendship! We could police the gulf together, provide security for shipping, and better the region overall! The main thing is; How will we (US) know if we never give them the chance to prove themselves? Thanks so much, I wish peace and the love of GOD to the world! Mike/Pennsylvania

Posted by Mikey Pugs | Report as abusive

The international comunity must push for a regime change in Iran. We cannot talk with the current regime unless they send an adult minded diplomat to deal with the issue.

Posted by Jose Garcia | Report as abusive

I think the Western powers should realise the Iranian regime is just trying to drag negotiations along for as long as possible. Really, USA, Britain, canada etc need to tell the Iranians – listen guys, you are not going to be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb

Posted by Horst Mulliner | Report as abusive

Persians have long mastered the art of diplomacy, which is why they have remained Persians in the most dangerous part of the world for millenniums. It would be wise of any nation to learn from and respect this rising sleeping beauty.

Posted by Poya | Report as abusive

i do not know the deal exactly , but i do admire Iran for it moves, becouse they make capital of image, pr with other words,everybody know about Iran now!:)),they are everywhere on the news!and this negociation brought them popularity betwen other countrys,some say are trying to get a solution and wors some others say why americans did not try this from the start!because from what we see they were open to diplomatics relations!so what goes around comes around!i think they took advantage of this big ”campaign” of diplomatic challange!and they do still have their plans, but they were smart with this!since they open negociation with Europe and US, i see a lot of other diplomatic events at high level in the country , and they succed…

Posted by Burca Alice Larisa | Report as abusive

IRAN is not the enenmy of any country including USA. this is USA that makes problems to IRAN. Why should IRAN be under prohibition for 30 years? the USA presidents can anser to this question.

Mike from Pens: Kudos for taking what we know to be an unpopular position. If not for Israeli pressure I don’t believe the US & international community would be taking this position. It’s Iran’s legal right to develop nuclear power and there’s no reason for them to give up this right which includes enrichment. In answer to another writer accepting third party supply of enriched uranium Iran will put itself at the mercy of the US who will use this to extract more concessions on religious and cultural issues. Syria gave up its nuclear program in exchange for financial and trade concessions and the US dragged its feet adding more conditions, Syria was duped. N Korea is now in talks and is in process of destroying its arsenal and technology; mark my words the day verification confirms the weapons have been destroyed talks will stall, more concessions (by the US) will be made and N Korea will regret their decision. The west has demonstrated their willingness to dishonor international agreements repeatedly, there’s little wonder that they aren’t trusted. As concerns a strike of some sort. Iran is not Iraq, they have the capability of waging both an open and covert war. If you think the middle east is in turmoil now any military action against Iran will unite any number of countries and garner financial support even from US allies in the region. There will be no turning back and with a trigger happy Israel it will be nuclear.

Posted by Norm | Report as abusive

Wow, has no one been listening, or is everyone taking this blogger’s word for it. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has vowed to “wipe Isreal off the map.” If I were Isreal, I would be worried. No one, and I repeat no one, in the western world is stupid enough to make that remark. Why? Because we know that whoever said it is going to be the one that probably gets wiped off the map.
They have been offered already-enriched uranium, access to US nuclear-energy info, and a host of other incentives that will help their rapidly increasing inflation. But instead they remain insistent that their nuclear work is peaceful, although they will not let anyone in to look at it. Sounds kinda suspicious to me….hmmmmm.
And in response to Burca, just because you are in the news doesn’t exactly make you a superstar. You need to learn the difference in English of the words “popularity” and “infamy”. Myanmar was in the news a lot. Earthquakes are in the news a lot. Terrorists are in the news a lot. Doesn’t make them popular, just means a lot of people love to hate them. Iran is only on good terms with countrys that don’t like the US, and that mainly includes people we have slapped sanctions on or don’t care enough about to worry (can you say Venezeula).
But I guess we should just trust the Iranians, cause its not as if they have ever threatened to “wipe Isreal off the map” or anything.

Posted by Ptrizzle | Report as abusive

I agree with John’s sentiments regarding Iran’s right. I too, have served as a U.S. Marine, and am a born and raised American. I am also a converted Muslim….

5pillar.wordpress.com