Lessons from Geneva (LobeLog, November 18, 2013)

Had the foreign ministers of the seven countries involved in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program remained at home, the last round that were held in Geneva would have been presented as a success. At the end of that session, the two lead negotiators — Catherine Ashton for the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and Abbas Araqchi for Iran — would have issued a joint communiqué expressing their satisfaction with the important progress achieved and their hope to reach, with some more hard work, a complete agreement in one or two more meetings.

Ministers don’t usually join a complex negotiating process unless the agreement under discussion is all but finalized. One or two points of contention can be left to their discretion if they correspond to their level of responsibility, which is political, certainly not technical. This was not the case in Geneva’s last meeting. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, was already there from the outset. One day later, the US Secretary of State John Kerry abruptly modified his Middle East agenda so he could rush to Geneva. But, at that time, the text of the draft agreement still bore square brackets around language touching upon crucial points.

Why, then, was such a decision made? Perhaps it was Kerry’s initiative, or that of Catherine Ashton, or maybe it was the U.S. team in Geneva — or both — who told Mr. Kerry to come since the agreement was close to completion. (In any case, somewhere along the way there was a wrong assessment of the situation, and probably some dose of over-confidence in the American capacity to wrap up an agreement.) In still another hypothesis, perhaps the draft was practically finalized, thus authorizing the arrival of the ministers for signature, but the French unexpectedly reneged on their initial consent. This would have represented a grave breach of rules on France’s part. Until now, no evidence has confirmed such a scenario.

From then on, things could only go from bad to worse. The mere announcement of Kerry’s arrival created a wave of unfounded optimism. Informed of Kerry’s decision, the European ministers felt an obligation to come to Geneva, if only to be part of the game. Pressed by a crowd of journalists, the ministers could not keep silent for long. Most of them confined themselves to general, upbeat statements. But Laurent Fabius went the opposite way. His breaking of the rule of confidentiality and his visible annoyance at the turn of events made him, and France with him, the lightning rod, attracting all the frustrations created by the widening gap between high expectations and the practical hurdles of the negotiation process. And nothing could be changed by the last-minute arrival of the Russian and Chinese ministers. That session was already doomed.

If there was a mistake on Fabius’ side, it was to corner himself in the role of the bad cop. Of course, he could have also made a deliberate choice in favor of French interests in Israel and in the Arabian Peninsula; history will tell. But if it was indeed a matter of commercial interest, France should have positioned itself as the best friend of Iran — where 75 million consumers crave western goods and equipment — and appealed for an early lifting of sanctions. Indeed, Iran is a country where France could almost instantly sell at least one or two nuclear power plants, two or three dozen Airbuses, resume production of hundreds of thousands cars, regain the exploitation of major oil and gas fields, and even substantially upgrade a widely obsolete system of defense.

Coming back to diplomacy, in previous times, when officials empowered by their respective governments had reached an agreement on a common draft, they used to initial the text. This meant that the negotiation was closed. It was then up to the governments to approve or reject the document as it was. If all governments agreed on the text, it could be signed at the political level, usually through a meeting of foreign ministers. This was of course before cell phones, and government airliners that now enable ministers to rush instantly to any corner of the planet. But the participants to the current negotiations would be well advised to keep in mind at least the spirit of such time-proven procedures. This could indeed be useful for the rough ride still ahead of them, as the next round of talks will need to bypass several more difficult and tense stages beyond the first agreement, which will hopefully be signed soon.

François Nicoullaud

It's time to abandon posturing on Iran

HAARETZ november 5, 2013

Seven former European ambassadors to Tehran: With a 10-year delay after Europe's lead, the United States and Iran are finally committed to serious talks. But they must move fast. 

As ambassadors to Tehran, we have all lived in Iran for several years. We are sure that the current nuclear negotiations between Tehran and six countries representing the international community can advance not only the cause of non-proliferation and stability in the Middle-East but also the everyday well-being of all the people in the region.

The direction these negotiations take will determine whether Iran’s situation will become even worse and its behavior more extreme, or whether it will make progress in welfare, civil liberties and human rights.

It is true that over the years the Iranian nuclear imbroglio has been a major impediment to any positive evolution. The most recent round of negotiations in Geneva showed that everyone is conscious of this and that everyone claims an intention to escape from the deadlock, but it showed as well that the hardest work lies ahead. Past experiences have left a deep divide of mutual mistrust between the parties: all should accept that trust is seldom present at the outset of a negotiation, but is a by-product of clear and verifiable agreements, faithfully implemented. If the parties can reach a good agreement and abide scrupulously by it, trust will blossom.

A good agreement is built on compromises. But it must also preserve essentials. For the international community, the critical point of the Iranian issue is that there should be an impassable barrier to weapons proliferation. For Iran, it lies in international recognition of its right to implement the main technologies of a major civil nuclear program. These two goals are legitimate.

If the negotiators were to fail to build an agreement on these bases, they would prejudice the future of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. These two cardinal instruments of world peace hold the keys to the solution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. To be faithful to those who have given them life and shape over the years, today’s negotiators have a duty to succeed.

And they should move fast, for at least three reasons. First, they would be well advised not to prolong needlessly the hardships inflicted on the Iranian people by international and bilateral sanctions. Second, it would be wise to remove as soon as possible by a good agreement the sincere and deep concerns of neighboring peoples, as in Israel and several Arab countries, about unchecked development of the Iranian nuclear program. Third, it would be good tactics to outpace those who, for various but converging motives, have started to mobilize in order to thwart any agreement with Iran.

Addressing ourselves to the Europeans who have been working on this issue for ten years, to the Americans who have at long last determined to take diplomacy in hand, and to the Iranians who have now set out seriously on the path of negotiation, we ask everyone to abandon posturing and time-wasting once and for all. We encourage you to negotiate firmly, concretely, and with a full intention to succeed. You cannot afford to disappoint the people of the region and beyond: they expect too much from you for that.

Richard Dalton (United Kingdom), Christofer Gyllenstierna (Sweden), Paul von Maltzahn (Germany), Guillaume Metten (Belgium), François Nicoullaud (France), Leopoldo Stampa (Spain), Roberto Toscano (Italy),