For the last 72 hours, I have been trying to solve a riddle. A nuclear deal suddenly and unexpectedly emerged within hours at last week’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the 5+1 Powers. Yet, as Foreign Ministers seemed on the verge of signing the agreement, it disappeared and was replaced by a commitment to meet again on November 20.


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My initial line was that the French objections on Saturday morning, as Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned of a “game of fools”, had pulled the rug from under the deal. Five hours of talks on Saturday night between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the European Union’s Catherine Ashton could not overcome the French concerns: 1) the arrangements for suspension of Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% and disposal of its stock; and 2) the construction of the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor, with its by-product of plutonium.

Yet Kerry began declaring, in statements and on American television, that it was the Iranians — despite their proclamation in Geneva that they were ready to sign “the deal on the table” — who refused to accept the agreement on Saturday night. That declaration brought an uncharacteristically heated response from Zarif, who accused Kerry of spinning a deceptive story and of walking away from the deal provisionally arranged in Geneva.

So which version is right?

My impulse was to respond: Both.

By Saturday morning, all the 5+1 Powers except France and Iran had neared agreement on the key points of the deal. Tehran would suspend 20% enrichment in return for recognition — whether implicit or explicit is unclear — of Iran’s right to enrich to a lower level such as 5%. An initial period of six months would test the agreement, during which time there would be a significant beginning to the easing of sanctions.

However, Fabius’ objections forced Kerry and other Foreign Ministers to re-calculate. Could they proceed, given the French dissent? Apparently not, so Kerry spent the rest of Saturday trying to get Iranian concessions. He could not, in the meeting that lasted past midnight, and so the talks were adjourned until November 20.

Now the Guardian posts an article supporting that analysis:

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….

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.

The US Secretary of State could have told Fabius that, given Iran’s willingness to suspend 20% enrichment, its right to have a limited program — inspected and supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency and under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty — should be accepted. Kerry could have said that, given that the Arak reactor is not due on-line until late 2014, there was sufficient time to put in safeguards against the militarised use of plutonium.

Kerry could have done this to get the interim deal that all other Foreign Ministers had been supporting.

He did not.

In the words of one French official: “Kerry was confident enough to accept what Fabius had to say.” The two points were included in a three-page draft proposal put together by the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, who acts as a convenor for [the 5+1 Powers]….

At 9.20pm on Saturday the agreement was put before foreign ministers from the UK, Germany, Russia and the deputy foreign minister of China, who make up the rest of the “P5+1” group, which has been negotiating with Iran for seven years.

“Kerry was even more forceful in presenting this draft than Fabius. He got behind it,” the French official said. The P5+1 ministers approved it, and at 10.50 p.m. it was put to the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had joined the meeting in a conference room in the hotel.

On Monday, some Foreign Ministers were playing down the last-minute failure to get an agreement. Britain’s William Hague said, “While I cannot go into the details of the discussions while the talks continue, I can say that most of those gaps are now narrow, and many others were bridged altogether during the negotiations.” Fabius, far more conciliatory than on Saturday, also said that a deal was not far off.

But then there was Kerry’s criticism, repeated during a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, “There was unity but Iran couldn’t take it. The French signed off on [the agreement], we signed off on it.”

Last night, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif was not highlighting the positive statements of Hague and Fabius — or Monday’s breakthrough agreement between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Instead, he was chiding Kerry about the turn from progress to stalemate to blame, “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.”

And thus, with a riddle solved, a question emerged: will an erosion on confidence snatch diplomatic defeat from the jaws of victory?