Baghdad — Recently resumed Iran nuclear talks almost collapsed in Baghdad, just a couple hours before the chief international negotiator announced that the parties had agreed to hold a third meeting in Moscow next month, Western diplomats told Al-Monitor Friday.
The first Iran nuclear talks in over a year, held in Istanbul last month, were roundly praised by all parties as constructive and held in a positive atmosphere.
The Baghdad meeting got off to a tense and difficult start Wednesday (May 23), after Iran gave a decidedly chilly reception to a proposed international package of inducements for curbing its 20 percent uranium enrichment. However, it was late on the talks’ second day (May 24) when the diplomatic process almost totally broke down, European diplomats told Al-Monitor. Nor has it been previously reported that a key impasse was not just between Iran and the six-nation negotiating group known as the P5+1; but rather among members of the P5+1 themselves about the language of the final statement. Specifically, the diplomats disagreed over whether to issue a final statement that might risk not moving to another meeting or trying to gain acceptance by Iran to the P5+1 statement, so the diplomatic process could move ahead, diplomats said.
“The danger of a breakdown came in the afternoon of the second day,” a European diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Friday. “We just didn’t look like we had agreement, enough compromise.”
At the very end, the final statement reflected a sufficient level of compromise so they could go forward, he said.
Other nations had thought they should take a harder line.
The diplomat declined to identify which nations in the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — pushed for taking a harder line. But he did say that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was ultimately able to find a compromise in working out the text of the final document that every member of the group unanimously endorsed. The statement said while significant gaps remain between Iran and the P5+1, there was enough common ground to move to another meeting to try to advance areas of agreement.
“Obviously it’s a lot harder in Baghdad because of the security situation,” said the diplomat. “But [Ashton’s team] was happy to avail themselves of the Iraqi hosts.” Ashton’s team got both Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister (and former oil minister) Hussein al-Shahristani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari “to engage with the Iranians to understand what their position is,” the diplomat said as one example.
She also sent the Chinese and Russian negotiators into an eleventh-hour trilateral meeting with the Iranians late Thursday. At the meeting, Iran proposed three venues acceptable to it for a follow-up meeting: Astana, Kazakhstan; Beijing or Moscow. At a plenary meeting at the conclusion of the talks, it only took five minutes for all the diplomats to settle on Moscow.
“What she wanted to do is to make sure we move forward, but not move forward at any cost,” the diplomat said. “I think she found that balance.”
“The bottom line is: she laid out a strategy that says, ‘Let’s get clear what the views are: to get enough agreement from the Iranians to move to a more detailed examination of the two proposals,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”
Ashton “doesn’t want talks for talks’ sake,” a second, senior European diplomat said in an interview with Al-Monitor Friday. On this point, all six nations in the P5+1 agree, the second diplomat said.
The difficulty of the Baghdad meetings actually overshadowed some important developments in their approach to the negotiations, the diplomat added.
In Baghdad, the Iranians, for the first time, said, “We are ready to discuss with you the proposals put on the table,” the senior European diplomat said. “This has never happened before. In years before, there has been real discussion, but not about the nuclear issue.”
“For me, it’s important that the talks be detailed and substantive,” she said.
The diplomat said there was a change in the seriousness of the Iranians’ approach to the talks since a February letter from lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to Ashton accepting new nuclear talks. The concise letter — only few paragraphs long — directly mentions willingness to focus talks on the nuclear issue and avoided past versions’ lengthy diatribes against perceived international double standards. The senior European diplomat, who has worked on Iran for almost the past decade, called it a “breakthrough.”
“It is important they are discussing the issues,” the diplomat said. “There is common ground. But they made linkages between recognition of their right to enrich and [international requests on aspects of their program].”
The upticks in diplomatic engagement come amid incredible strains and mutual mistrust even in understanding each side’s negotiating styles and psychologies.
“They are always pushing maximal positions,” the senior European diplomat said. “They are always a bit unpredictable. Iran is a very isolated country and this is what happens to isolated countries. They are very proud of their history and feel like they are often on the losing side. There is a lot of mistrust on both sides.”
“Our objective is for Iran to become in full compliance with all the resolutions of the UN Security Council and IAEA,” the diplomat said. “The idea is to get there. This is why we propose as a first-step package that addresses our major concerns about 20% [enrichment]. This is to help them rebuild confidence: they do something, we do something.”
The Iranian negotiating team “agree that this [Iran's 20-percent enrichment] is an issue for discussion,” a second, senior European diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. “The question is what they would get for it. Also, they link it with other proposals, like upfront recognition of their right to enrich.”
“The problem is, we can’t ignore the reality that there are six UN security resolutions calling for Iran to suspend enrichment,” the senior diplomat said.
“We have to regain trust,” the diplomat said. “But they have to take the first step.’
Lead international negotiator Ashton has used a bit of psychology and levity to try to steer past the inevitable pitfalls.
“I think she has the ability to build levity and humor into the conversation with Jalili in a way it’s harder for say the American undersecretary of state and other P3 political directors to be able to do, at least at this stage,” one Western official said. “That lightens things.”