Overcoming Past Pains, West Begins to Imagine Possible Nuclear Deal With Iran

This week, for first time, Iran and world powers spoke the same language, both figuratively and literally; Israel's warnings, meanwhile, were seen as no more than a nuisance.

GENEVA - If one picture will be remembered from the round of nuclear talks held this week in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers, it is that of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif surrounded by tough Swiss security guards being wheeled in a wheelchair to the final press conference at the end of the two days of talks.

Zarif arrived in Geneva with serious pains in his back and leg, seemingly the result of tension and overwork. These pains started in the wake of a headline published last week in the Kayahan daily newspaper in Iran, which is linked to the right wing camp.

Zarif, the headline said, criticized Iranian President Hassan Rohani's new detente with the United States. It claimed that in a closed briefing to the Iranian Parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, the foreign minister said Rohani's telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama was a mistake. Zarif was furious. He denied saying any of what the newspaper attributed to him, and claimed the reports damaged his health, and even forced him to be hospitalized.

Despite his health problems, Zarif, who is also Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, decided to attend the Geneva meeting. A special couch was installed in the Iranian delegation's airplane so Zarif could spend the flight lying down. The foreign minister did not hide his condition from the 40 Iranian reporters on the plane and briefed them while he was spread out on the sofa moaning with pain, covered with a flowery blanket and holding a laptop computer on his abdomen.

Acupuncture brings the sides closer

Zarif's back pain turned up to be a main issue in the talks and even created moments of unprecedented closeness and intimacy between the Iranian delegation and representatives of the six powers. An unnamed senior American official who took part in the sessions in Geneva said that Zarif surprised the Western diplomats when he spoke openly about the physiotherapist who accompanied him from Iran, and about the acupuncture he had been treated with the morning of the second day of the talks.

Some Western diplomats commiserated with Zarif and shared their health issues caused by many years of flights and days of meeting in uncomfortable chairs during diplomatic missions. "[E]verybody had a piece of a back story for him – books they thought he should read, things he might try – because we all have suffered," said the senior American official in a State Department briefing to the press.

The various goings on concerning Zarif's back pain were just one example of the complete change in atmosphere between Iran and the P5+1 nations. All the Western diplomats who participated in the talks have been dealing with Iran's nuclear program for years and have already been through a number of previous rounds of talks. But not one of them could have imagined such a dynamic with the previous head of the Iranian negotiating team, Saeed Jalili, who mostly gave out sour looks and avoided even polite conversation.

The feeling among the American delegation was that, for the first time, Iran and the six powers were speaking the same language. In fact, this was not just a feeling. This was the first round of talks to be conducted in English - something that could never have happened during Jalili's time as chief negotiator. Jalili was well-known for his monotonic monologues in Persian, in which he listed all the sins of the West against his country over the entire course of history.

"There’s good news and bad news in that; bad news for me because I don’t get those two minutes to think about what I want to say next, but good news in that the pace of the discussions is much better and creates the ability to really have the kind of back-and-forth one must have if you want to have a negotiation, otherwise, you’re really not in a negotiating frame," the senior American official said.

Wednesday evening, after the joint press conference held by Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the Europe Union's foreign policy chief, background briefings began. Each delegation assembled the reporters who accompanied it to Geneva and presented its impressions of the two days of talks. It was enough to hear the flood of superlative complements the American diplomats rained down on their Iranian counterparts in order to understand how great the change really was.

The sentiment described by Americans and Europeans is that, unlike previous rounds of negotiations, the Iranians were not interested in wasting time. As their economy is collapsing under the weight of sanctions, the Iranians came to Geneva seeking results. They were the ones to push for another meeting at the earliest possible opportunity, after a meeting of Western and Iranian technical experts.

To put it in language preferred by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Iranians spoke "dugri" (Israeli slang for straight talk). They didn't beat around the bush and wanted to get down to business.

"I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation… I would say we are beginning that kind of negotiation to get to a place where, in fact, one can imagine that you could possibly have an agreement," the senior American official added.

Big gaps still exist

However, despite the pleasant atmosphere, large gaps between the sides remained and there were still many disagreements do discuss. The sides are kilometers apart from one another and in Geneva they came a few meters closer, said senior diplomats from Russia's foreign ministry who attempted to cool the excitement off a bit.

In the coming weeks and months, the parties are faced with many long hours together in the offices of the gray United Nations headquarters in Geneva, as well as in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in the city. To reach an agreement, the two sides must get into the fine details, Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, told reporters.

Everything will be put on the table: the number of centrifuges that will be shut down; the future of the underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordo; the way in which international supervision will be increased; the future of the enriched uranium stockpiles; the type and scope of the sanctions that will be lifted; and the timetable for implementation of all these issues, as well as others.

Israel who?

Israel did not have a part in the nuclear talks. It was almost not mentioned during the sessions - and not even in conversations held in the corridors between reporters, who packed the media center and press conferences. The statement released by Israel's security cabinet the morning the talks started, Netanyahu's implied threats of a preemptive attack on Iran, the hysterical comparison of the Geneva talks in 2013 to the ones in Munich in 1938 by Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz – they all received only minor attention and few mentions in the press.

The feeling in Geneva this week was that the world powers, and the U.S. in particular, see the Israeli government as a burden, or task at best – someone that should be kept in the loop, that should be updated before and after as so to ensure that it does not go out of control. At worst - the Israeli government was seen as a nuisance and its premier as a trouble maker, if not a war-mongering spoiler.

The suspicion concerning Netanyahu, following his UN General Assembly address last month and the blitz of interviews he gave after, is great. Even moderate messages that were included in the security cabinet statement, such as Israeli willingness to adopt a diplomatic solution to the nuclear conflict and recognition of Iran's right for a peaceful nuclear program, made no impression on the Western diplomats or the international press in Geneva.

It is difficult - if not impossible - to know at this stage whether a historic agreement is within reach, one that will finally bring an end to 20 years of international crises and regional tension stemming from the Iranian nuclear program. What can be said to be certain is that the Western powers and Iran are facing the best ever opportunity by far to reach such an agreement. The elections in Iran, in which 51 percent of voters supported mending ties with the West and removing the international economic sanctions, created a rare moment of grace, which may perhaps never be seen again.

Both the Western powers and Iran are aware of the great dangers that a failure of the diplomatic process would entail. The enormous support of the Iranian public that Rohani and Zarif now enjoy will not necessarily remain in force for long.

If the Iranian president and his foreign minister do not succeed in starting to move Iran out of its economic crisis within a few months, they may well lose the mandate they received from the public. If that happens, the backing the two receive from the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could also disappear. Those who would benefit in such a scenario are the most extremist elements in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who could declare: "We told you so." From here to war, the path could be wind up being very short.