Iran nuclear talks: the long and winding road to a landmark agreement

Julian Borger reports: When Kerry first met Zarif at the UN general assembly in September 2013, it was a historic rarity for two countries that had not had diplomatic relations for 33 years. By the time the framework deal was agreed, the two men had spent more time in each other’s company than with any other foreign official. The pressure from hardliners back home gave the negotiators common cause. And Kerry took Zarif’s recommendation on the best Persian restaurant in Switzerland. The US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, bonded with his opposite number, Ali Akbar Salehi, over physics and shared years teaching and studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Salehi became a grandfather for the first time during the Lausanne talks, the New York Times reported, Moniz presented him with baby gifts embossed with the MIT logo.

They worked through weekends and holidays. As the talks approached and passed a deadline in July 2014 in Vienna, Zarif worked through Ramadan, but it was impossible to negotiate and fast at the same time. Shia Islam exempts you from fasting for ten days if you are away from home, but if you want to extend the exemption after that you have to travel just over 25 miles a day (equivalent to 8 farsang, an ancient measure of distance) to justify it. So Zarif would get in a car every day and be driven in and out of the Austrian capital until he had clocked up the requisite mileage.

The foreign ministers came and went, but the technical experts often stayed behind, renting apartments in the host cities. One European non-proliferation expert missed most of the early life of his first child, spending three-quarters of his time on the road. A few of the negotiators received lucrative job offers during the course of the talks but had to defer them until the deal was done. Kerry’s deputy and master-negotiator, Bill Burns, had to put off retirement because both the Obama administration and the Iranians insisted that he stay. At critical points along the way, the technical and legal specialists often had to negotiate through the night.

“A lot of time it is not a matter of who is the smartest person in the room. It is a question of who has the most stamina,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department official who worked on the Iran dossier. “And Kerry had an incredible amount of stamina.”

The desired end-state of the negotiation was clear enough: Iran’s programme had to be limited so that it would take the country’s leaders at least a year to make a bomb, if they decided to do so, giving the rest of the world time to react. In return, the stifling sanctions regime buildup over the past nine years would be dismantled.

However, getting to that end-state has been endlessly complex. Fixing Iran’s “breakout” time at a year is a function of numbers of centrifuges, their efficiency and the already low stockpile of enriched uranium. To verify their calculations, American scientists constructed mock-up cascades of Iran’s centrifuges, using machines of the same vintage taken from Libya. Working at a classified site, the centrifuges were spun in an effort to determine how long they would take to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. The UK and Israel, and perhaps other western European states, also had smaller-scale centrifuge mock-ups, and made their own calculations of breakout times.

The complexities were not just scientific. The web of interlocking international sanctions posed dense legal challenges when it came to drawing up a timetable for their lifting that was acceptable to all sides. [Continue reading…]

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