Last weekend’s round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group surprised almost everyone involved.
Israel was surprised by what they perceived as the speed with which its American ally seemed to give in on basic assurances regarding the Iranian nuclear programme; the Western powers were surprised at the Iranian willingness to sign an agreement quickly; and everyone was astonished at the emergence of France as the most “hardline” party at the talks — even the French themselves.
The sudden rush of the foreign ministers of the US, Britain, France and Germany to the venue of the talks in Geneva on Friday was the first indication that they seemed to be on the verge of a major breakthrough.
“We were very, very close. Actually, extremely close,” US State Secretary John Kerry told the BBC on Tuesday, adding that, going forward, none of the differences between world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme were big enough to prevent an agreement.
Some Western diplomats, however, are now quietly confirming that the deal, as it was set out, was a mistake.
At the time, the interim deal on the table was that Iran would suspend its uranium enrichment project for six months in return for a limited reduction in the financial sanctions, in particular an unfreezing of the country’s assets in Western banks. Over the next six months, the sides would work on a wider, final deal.
While the parties seemed in general agreement, it was French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, who first expressed misgivings. More significantly, Mr Fabius then did so openly in a radio interview.
For the other Western nations, especially the US, France’s objections left little other alternative than to fall into line.
The main reservations regarded Iran’s continued construction of a new heavy-water reactor that could supply plutonium for a nuclear weapon.
The Iranians refused to freeze work there, only to commit to not placing uranium fuel in the reactor and actually switching it on. While Iran is still assumed to be a year away from completing the reactor at Arak, six months could give them time to reach a point very near completion.
In addition, France objected to any mention of Iran’s right to enrich uranium in the interim agreement and demanded further steps be taken regarding the uranium Iran has already enriched to 20 per cent purity.
For 24 hours, the talks were mainly between the P5+1 members. Then, on Saturday night, they agreed to put the French reservations to the Iranian side as their joint position. No agreement was signed and the sides scheduled a third round of talks next week at a lower diplomatic level.
Following the debacle, Mr Kerry tried to put up a united front, saying on Monday during a visit to the United Arab Emirates that “the French signed off on it; we signed off on it. There was unity, but Iran could not take it.”
However, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Jawad Zarif, was scathing about the differences within the P5+1 group. He tweeted: “Mr Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night? And publicly commented against it Friday morning?”. In another tweet, he said: “No amount of spinning can change what happened in 5+1 in Geneva from 6pm Thurs to 5.45pm Sat. But it can further erode confidence”.
In Israel, the view is that the Obama administration rushed to embrace the agreement with the same thoughtless haste that, two months ago, it cancelled plans to strike Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population.
In both cases, France was the only major Western power to favour a sterner approach.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held phone discussions during the talks with Barack Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, was scathing about the scuppered deal. After a tense meeting with Mr Kerry on Friday, he said that, for Iran, it was “the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal”.
Mr Netanyahu stressed that “Israel utterly rejects it and… will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people.”
Although the deal was not signed, Israel’s opposition has led it into an open rift with the US. On Monday, Mr Kerry publicly chided Mr Netanyahu, saying that “the time to oppose it is when you see what it is, not to oppose the effort to find out what is possible.”