Geneva talks end without deal on Iran's nuclear programme
- The Observer, Sunday 10 November 2013
Foreign minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio yesterday that Paris would not accept a 'fools’ game'. Photograph: Pool/REUTERS
Three gruelling days of high-level and high-stakes diplomacy came to an end in Geneva with no agreement on Iran's nuclear programme, after France blocked a stopgap deal aimed at defusing tensions and buying more time for negotiations.
A six-nation group of major powers and Iran agreed only to meet again on 20 November, but on a lower level – senior diplomats rather than foreign ministers. The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said: "A lot of concrete progress has been achieved, but differences remain." Asked about the part France had played, Ashton said that all parties to the talks had played an important role.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also sought to play down the disagreements that had surfaced with France, and the divisions between the six-nation group, known as the P5+1. "It was natural when we started dealing the details there could be differences of views," Zarif said. "But we are working together and hopeful we will be able to reach agreement when we meet again. What we were looking for was political will and determination, in order to end this phase and move to an end game. I think we are all on the same wavelength."
Privately, however, other diplomats at the talks were furious with the role of the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, whom they accused of breaking ranks by revealing details of the negotiations as soon as he arrived in Geneva on Saturday morning, and then breaking protocol again by declaring the results to the press before Ashton and Zarif had arrived at the final press conference.
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday that its "rights to enrichment" of uranium were "red lines" that would not be crossed and that the Islamic Republic had acted rationally and tactfully during the negotiations, according to Iranian media reports quoted by Reuters.
"We have said to the negotating sides that we will not answer to any threat, sanction, humiliation or discrimination. The Islamic Republic has not and will not bow its head to threats from any authority," he said during a speech at the National Assembly, Iran's student news agency said.
French opposition was focused on a draft text agreement that laid out a short-term deal to slow down or stop elements of the Iranian nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief. The French complained that the text, which they said was mostly drafted by Iran and the US, had been presented as a fait accompli and they did not want to be stampeded into agreement.
Fabius told France Inter radio yesterday morning that Paris would not accept a "fools' game". "As I speak to you, I cannot say there is any certainty that we can conclude," he said.
Iranian officials insisted that the draft had been written in close collaboration with western officials, and said France was single-handedly holding up progress by dividing the "P5+1" negotiating group, comprising the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Zarif would not comment on the French role directly but said: "Although the questions of the P5+1 should be addressed, a great deal of time is being spent on negotiations within the P5+1 group. This is normal because they are six nations with different views and their own national interests and they need to agree." He said that when the P5+1 was ready to agree,
"we are ready to find a solution".
Fabius said one of the key issues was Iran's heavy water reactor at Arak, which is due to reach completion next year after many delays. The west and Israel have called for construction work to stop as part of an interim deal aimed at buying time for negotiations on a more comprehensive long-term deal.
Iran says the reactor's purpose is to produce nuclear isotopes that are useful for medical and agricultural purposes. But when operating it would produce plutonium as a by-product in its spent fuel, and that plutonium would represent a serious proliferation risk, giving an alternative route to making a bomb that would not depend on uranium enrichment.
Israel has threatened to bomb the reactor before it starts operations, pointing out that once it is fuelled, bombing becomes impossible as it would scatter radioactive fallout around a large region.
On the sidelines of the talks, which shifted from Geneva's Palais des Nations to the five-star Intercontinental Hotel after the foreign ministers arrived yesterday, some western officials accused France of sabotaging the hopes of a deal to curry favour with Israel and the Gulf Arab states.
There was little doubt that the talks had reached a climactic moment of a sort not witnessed in a decade of on-off negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.
Six foreign ministers and one deputy minister converged on Switzerland in a bid to break the deadlock. Russia's senior diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, arrived yesterday morning to join Fabius, Zarif, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, and the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. China sent its vice foreign minister, Li Baodong.
"These negotiations have made good progress and continue to make good progress," Hague said. "But there are still important issues to resolve."