GENEVA - When Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif entered the press center in Geneva early Sunday morning, minutes after signing an interim agreement to freeze his country's nuclear program, he was greeted by excited clapping from the large contingent of Iranian reporters. Journalists applauding politicians may seem strange to western eyes, but most of them work for state-sponsored and certainly regime-sanctioned organizations which pay their wages.
- New Sanctions Battle Could Harm Israel
- Ex-intel Chief: Better Than No Iran Deal
- U.S.-Iran Held Secret Nuclear Talks
- Iran’s Faded Red Line
- Israeli Team Heads to U.S. for Iran Talks
- New Iran, New U.S., Same Old Bibi
- Poll: Most in U.S. Back Iran Deal
- Why Any Agreement Is Bad for the Jews
Not that the Iranian journalists' joy was contrived. More than retaining their nuclear capabilities, the deal symbolized for them an Iran emerging from its international isolation and the hope for relief from the sanctions that have directly hit all of their pockets. The joy was real; Twitter accounts were filled with quotes from Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi claiming that Iran had not given way on its principles.
But an hour later, with grey light spreading over Geneva, they began to acquaint themselves with the agreement's details. They had heard U.S. State Secretary John Kerry speak after Zarif, his words directed at the skeptical senators in Washington and the government in Jerusalem, explaining what Iran actually got in the deal, and what it didn't.
"Really? There's no recognition of our right to enrich uranium?" asked one (all Iranian journalists remain anonymous), finding it hard to believe that the right defined by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as a "red line" had been forsaken. "We will stop building in Arak? After spending billions there?" queried another, "and why are they unfreezing only seven billion dollars? It's a drop in the sea. It won't change much."
For four and a half days it was hard to discern which of the statements coming from the Iranians was meant to create a momentum in the talks, what was aimed at creating an image in the international media and what was for internal consumption.
As was revealed on Sunday by Associated Press and Al-Monitor, the Americans had a secret back-channel to the Iranians and it's clear that the basic framework of the agreement existed now for weeks, even months, and was almost signed in the last round of talks two weeks ago. But the points of dispute remained obstacles as talks resumed on Wednesday. And it took over four days of drawn-out negotiations to resolve them.
Until Kerry's arrival on the last day of talks, the Americans barely took part in the negotiations with the Iranians, aside from a couple of short bilateral sessions. The talks were led solely by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a never-ending series of meetings with Zarif, only the last two of them with Kerry's participation.
While the representatives of the six powers remained silent throughout on details of the ongoing talks, the Iranians methodically leaked information to the battalion of reporters, lobbyists and hangers-on surrounding them, who were an unofficial part of the delegation. The journalists from Tehran were parked in large groups in hotels, shuttled together in vans to the media center and InterContinental Hotel and even ate Persian food organized for them by Iran's mission to the UN. (Most wouldn't have been able to afford Geneva restaurant prices). They echoed and replicated the delegation's changing messages, serving as a pipeline for the incessant supply of tweets, quotes and spin, the source of most of which was Araghchi, the Iranians' de-facto spokesperson. His was a constant stream of information and disinformation designed to raise and lower expectations back home while providing western journalists with their only source of knowledge on what was happening in the closed rooms and the main areas of disagreement.
In a closed briefing for Iranian journalists on Thursday morning, Araghchi clearly flagged the main bone of contention: Iran's demand for explicit recognition of what it sees as its right to enrich uranium, a demand the West insisted be left for the final agreement. There were other demands, most prominent of which were the continued building of the Arak heavy-water reactor and relief from the main sanctions on Iran's oil trade and banks. But the right to enrich came up again and again as the central demand.
On Saturday afternoon, the Iranians leaked the agreement's details to a small website, Nasim. The report's veracity was unclear at that stage, but ultimately it came very close to the signed agreement. It transpired that the Iranians had given way on nearly all their demands and agreed to convert the uranium enriched to 20-percent, freeze construction at Arak and accept the fact that the main sanctions would remain in place until the final agreement. But the report still said that an agreement was yet to be reached on the wording of the acknowledgement of the right to enrich and it remained so into the very last hours of the negotiations, as Sunday began. And the leaks continued underlining this, even when Iranian news agencies reported a deal had been reached at two in the morning. An hour later, when the official announcement came, sources close to the delegation continued tweeting that Iran had received its coveted recognition.
At that stage, under the surface, the Americans and Iranians began counter-briefing with the White House and State Department, putting out details of the agreement and denying the Iranians had gotten what they had demanded. When Zarif was questioned on this at the press conference, he was evasive. "In two distinct places there is a very clear reference that Iranian enrichment program will continue and in the future," he said. When the western reporters persisted, he launched into a convoluted explanation of Iran's membership in the Treaty for the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). "In the NPT it doesn't talk about nuclear reactors, research reactors, power plants, it just talks about the inalienable rights. Iran doesn't need it to say it has the right, Iran will enrich."
The questioning was a hindrance to Zarif's marketing of the agreement to his people. In all the speeches and statements over the next day by Zarif and President Hassan Rohani, they claimed that the international community had recognized Iran's right to enrich. But Kerry, who took the stage after Zarif had left the room, was unequivocal. The agreement "does not say that Iran has a right to enrich," he insisted, "no matter what interpretive statements may say." Actually, the agreement allows Iran to enrich limited quantities of uranium to a 3.5-percent level and the preamble says that the comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.
The fudged diplomat-speak doesn't recognize the Iranians' right but gives enough to Rohani and Zarif to claim victory in Tehran, flanked by family members of the four assassinated nuclear scientists.
They may not have received international recognition but for now it seems they are convincing a significant proportion of the Iranian public and are even being praised, for now, by the regime's hardliners. As long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps insisting that the agreement is bad for Israel and the world, they will remain convinced of their hollow victory.