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Clearing Hurdles to Iran Nuclear Deal With Standoffs, Shouts and Compromise

VIENNA — One by one, the roadblocks to a nuclear accord between Iran and the United States had been painstakingly cleared. But as the negotiations went into their third week in the neoclassical Coburg Palace hotel this month, a major dispute lingered over whether a ban on Iran’s ability to purchase conventional weapons and missile technology would remain in place.

The American delegation, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, insisted on extending the ban. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister and his country’s chief negotiator, was opposed. Backing him were the Russians and Chinese, equal parties in the talks, who saw a lucrative market in selling arms to Tehran.

A compromise was struck that fully satisfied neither side: a five-year ban on the sale of conventional weapons and an eight-year ban on ballistic missiles.

Privately, Mr. Kerry told his team that any lifting of the ban was bound to inflame many in Congress, where fears of empowering Iran would mix with presidential politics. But shortly before midnight on Monday he called President Obama, and together they agreed that it was not worth losing what they saw as the best chance to roll back Iran’s nuclear program simply because there was a risk that sometime in the future Iran would be able to acquire far less dangerous weapons.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, who helped get the secret talks started.

Mohammed Mahjoub / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the 17 long days here in Vienna, the standoffs, trade-offs, shouts and confrontations — some real, some staged for negotiating advantage — sometimes obscured the fact that the two countries were negotiating with entirely different agendas.

As Mr. Obama made clear again Wednesday, the alternative he saw to the deal was a steady slide toward another war — perhaps, aides thought, in just a year or two as Iran’s nuclear abilities accelerated. Throughout the talks, he had one goal: to diminish the prospect that Iran could develop an atomic bomb — or could race for one before the United States and its allies could react — and buy time to try to restructure the relationship.

For the president, everything else — Iran’s support for terrorism, its imprisonment of dissidents and even some Americans, its meddling in Iraq and Syria, its arms trade — was secondary.

For the Iranians, this was a negotiation first and foremost to get rid of what Mr. Zarif often called the “unjust sanctions” while trying to keep their nuclear options open. And while they treasured their nuclear program, they treasured the symbolism of not backing down to American demands even more. But Mr. Zarif was walking his own high-wire act at home. While he had an important ally in Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, hard-liners did not want to reach any deal at all; many were making a fortune from the sanctions because they controlled Iran’s black markets.

Mr. Moniz has a Massachusetts Institute of Technology connection with Ali Akbar Salehi.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

And conservatives around the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were looking for any signs that their Americanized chief negotiator, who studied at the University of Denver, was ready to give away too much nuclear infrastructure without getting Iran the sanctions lifted in return, as the ayatollah had decreed.

There was no single event, no heart-to-heart conversation between adversaries or game-changing insight that made the Iran deal happen. Instead, over a period of years, each side came to gradually understand what mattered most to the other.

For the Americans, that meant designing offers that kept the shell of Iran’s nuclear program in place while seeking to gut its interior. For the Iranians, it meant ridding themselves of sanctions in ways they could describe to their own people as forcing the United States to deal with Iran as an equal, respected sovereign power. And in the end they reached agreement because a brief constellation of personalities and events came into alignment:

The sultan of Oman, who convinced the White House that he could establish a back channel to the Iranians. The election of Mr. Rouhani, who Mr. Obama thought would be more receptive to his overtures than Iran’s aging supreme leader. A series of insights from the Energy Department’s nuclear laboratories that allowed the physics of enrichment to create new space for compromise among the political leaders. And the presence of two top diplomats, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif, driven by the conviction that they could break an ugly 35-year history.

Mr. Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press

At one point last week the simmering tension between the two negotiators boiled over when Mr. Zarif felt his American counterpart was pressing too hard. “Never threaten an Iranian!” he shouted. At the other end of the table Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who has had his share of disputes with Mr. Kerry, tried to break the tension. “Or a Russian!” he said, as the room broke out in nervous laughter.

But during a break on one particularly discouraging March day in Lausanne, Switzerland, where negotiations were held before adjourning to Vienna, Mr. Zarif struck a different tone as he invoked the names of the key figures on two sides, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the top energy officials of the United States and Iran, Ernest J. Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi.

“We are not going to have another time in history when there is an Obama and a Biden and a Kerry and a Moniz again,” he said, according to notes of the conversation. “And there may be no Rouhani, Zarif and Salehi.”

A Shift to Sanctions

Hassan Rouhani was allowed to run for president in 2013 largely on a platform of ridding Iran of punishing sanctions.

Ivan Sekretarev / Associated Press

Barack Obama came to office hoping for a dialogue with Tehran but focused on the problem of nuclear proliferation. After Ayatollah Khamenei responded to Mr. Obama’s private letters with long diatribes about America’s efforts, the president turned to squeezing the country economically.

“Obama seemed very comfortable with the shift to sanctions after the Iranians failed to reciprocate to his overtures,” said Gary Samore, then a senior White House aide. He pressed the Russians to delay selling the S-300, a sophisticated air defense system, to Iran, and sent a delegation to persuade Beijing to reduce China’s purchases of oil.

But when an offer to help get secret talks started with the Iranians came from Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, the president was intrigued. Eventually the White House turned to a trusted ally to tease out the possibilities: Mr. Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts. Meeting in Oman in December 2011, the sultan said an accord could be reached.

There was a high likelihood it could happen, the sultan said, if the Obama administration showed its seriousness about a diplomatic solution. But making a point that would recur time and again — down to the last days of the Vienna talks — he said that a way would need to be found to allow the Iranians to “keep their honor.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It took seven months — until July 2012 — before secret envoys sent by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the Iranians, and that meeting went poorly. Then, in June 2013, came the election of Mr. Rouhani, whom the supreme leader had allowed to run, largely on a platform of ridding Iran of the sanctions that were squeezing the elite and middle class.

“The president said we had to work up a letter to him right away,” one of Mr. Obama’s senior aides said. “He sensed it was a moment we had to seize.”

As Mr. Obama’s aides sketched out how the negotiations might play out, they faced a threshold decision: Would they abandon the Bush administration’s mantra that “not one centrifuge spins,” a position they knew the Iranians would never accept? Or were they willing to allow a token Iranian program — a face-saving one — if the trade-off was two decades or so of restrictions?

A consensus quickly emerged that a contained program was far better than a smoldering confrontation that seemed headed toward a military strike. “The idea was that if we accepted enrichment it would be at a very small level,” said Dennis B. Ross, who served on the National Security Council during Mr. Obama’s first term. “By being very limited, it would be a manifestation that they really had a peaceful nuclear program.”

Graphic | Who Got What They Wanted in the Iran Nuclear Deal Here is a look at what Iran and the United States wanted, and what they got.

But it became clear that Iran envisioned something different: a sizable nuclear infrastructure that would take a pause of a few years, the price of ending sanctions, but then resume its march to “industrial scale” uranium enrichment. The gap between the American numbers of acceptable centrifuges and the Iranian numbers seemed unbridgeable.

Looking for a way to break the deadlock without forcing the Iranians into a corner, the nuclear experts at the Energy Department began to present other, more complex options. The focus, they suggested, should not be simply on the number and type of centrifuges, but the “breakout time,” the amount of time it would take for Iran, under a “best reasonable” estimate, to produce a single weapon’s worth of material. Put simply, Iran could have centrifuges running if it agreed to a far smaller stockpile of fuel.

“There were many intense meetings on this,” recalled Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser at the time, and now the deputy secretary of state. “We had to present a lot of permutations to the president to meet his bottom lines.”

The military said it could live with a “breakout time” of a year; that was plenty of time to launch a strike to destroy Iran’s production facilities. But the optics of allowing thousands of centrifuges to remain was not good.

“Throughout this process,” Mr. Blinken said, “we’ve been faced with a choice between what is politically feasible and what is practically necessary.”

It would be the first of many such choices.

Progress Is Halting

A series of secret negotiations with the Rouhani team, led by Mrs. Clinton’s top aide, Jake Sullivan, and one of America’s most experienced diplomats, William J. Burns, explored the possibilities.

Graphic | What Key Players Are Saying About the Iran Nuclear Deal A guide to international reaction to the historic accord.

“I have about six months to get this through,” Mr. Zarif said in New York in September 2013, on his first trip to the United Nations as foreign minister after many years of academic exile. After that, he feared, the opponents of dealing with the United States would rise again. He was wrong: It turned out the process went on for another 22 months.

A first agreement, just to get Iran to freeze its current nuclear activity and blend down some stockpiles of fuel that the West feared was approaching weapons-grade, took months to negotiate. Then came halting progress, as the Americans began to realize that at every stage the Iranians were fighting to preserve every major nuclear facility. “It was all about perception,” one negotiator said. “They fought to keep the buildings and tangible equipment. It was easier for them to give up fuel or parts of the equipment people didn’t see.” That preserved a narrative that nothing had been surrendered.

Last summer, Iran’s supreme leader made the problem even harder, pronouncing in a speech (which took Mr. Zarif by surprise) that Iran should eventually have an industrial-scale enrichment program — with 190,000 centrifuges — to provide fuel for power reactors. The logjam was not broken until several extensions of the talks, and a marathon set of meetings in Lausanne, where a critical treaty had been negotiated at the end of World War I. By this time, Mr. Moniz and Mr. Salehi, a former foreign minister and now head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, joined the talks to work out the nuclear details — in a less political, more scientific environment.

The officials working under Mr. Salehi “were mostly hard-liners, and they would give on nothing,” one American official said. But when Mr. Salehi, who got his nuclear training at M.I.T. before the Iranian revolution, showed up and developed a rapport with Mr. Moniz, the secretary of energy and a former chairman of the M.I.T. physics department, the Iranian bureaucrats were often sidelined, or overruled. (Mr. Moniz played the connection to the hilt, showing up one day with M.I.T.-logo baby gifts for Mr. Salehi’s first grandchild.)

Over intense days, in which proposals were sketched out on rolling white boards so that nothing was on paper, where it might have to go back to Tehran for approval, they worked out a framework.

The two scientists found ways to achieve the one-year breakout time, at least for the first 10 years, by reducing low enriched uranium stocks to a mere 660 pounds, down from about nine tons that Iran has now produced. In return, Iran would be allowed over 6,000 centrifuges, and an agreement to keep 1,000 of them in Fordo, the deep underground enrichment site that worried Israeli officials because it was impermeable to Israeli bombing. But no fissile material — the stuff of enriched uranium — would be allowed at Fordo, and last week the Iranians agreed to pull most of the piping out of the facility, making it even harder to restart operations.

Still, Mr. Obama had talked about the need to close the facility when he revealed its existence in 2009. There were other compromises. One Western diplomat said an initial hope among some of the nations involved in the talks was that the central provisions of an agreement would last 20 years. They got 10, with restrictions on how much of a stockpile Iran could maintain that last for 15 years.

“By the time we left Lausanne, most of the nuclear issues were solved, we just had to work out the specific wording,” one of the negotiators said.

But tellingly, in the ensuing two and a half months, the two sides described their agreements in very different terms. Mr. Kerry described an Iranian capability that had been neutralized; the Iranians a capability that had been preserved. That set up a collision course for the last negotiations, in Vienna.

Political Requirements Differ

Mr. Kerry arrived in Vienna on June 28, hobbling on crutches after breaking his femur in a bicycle accident in France. His chief negotiator, Wendy Sherman, a tenacious, detail-oriented diplomat who had broken two or three bones of her own during the talks, had already been in Vienna for a week.

The Iranians, she reported, were intent on getting bigger, faster relief from sanctions, claiming Mr. Rouhani’s political survival depended on it.

The United States also had its requirements. On the nuclear side, it needed to cut off all three of Iran’s pathways to a bomb: enriching uranium, producing plutonium or covertly manufacturing or purchasing a weapon. Each of those carried enormous complexities. Politically, it needed to show that Iran met all its major obligations before sanctions were lifted, and that there was a mechanism to reimpose them quickly if Tehran stopped cooperating.

Mr. Obama had already given ammunition to critics of a deal when he said in an April interview that after year 13 of the accord Iran’s breakout time could be down to nearly zero. That seemed to acknowledge the main critique of the emerging agreement — that it constituted the medium-term management of the Iranian program, not its elimination.

American negotiators believed the deal was better than that, but to constrain Iran’s ability to emerge from the accord as a nuclear threshold state they had to pin the Iranians down on some of the technical details, including the development of more efficient centrifuges.

The problem was that the principal Iranian interlocutor for settling precisely that issue, Mr. Salehi, was missing: He had undergone three abdominal operations in the previous two months, and on a conference call a few weeks before Mr. Moniz thought he sounded weak. “We didn’t know if Salehi was reluctant to come, or too weak,” said one senior American official. But without him, “we were getting nowhere.”

Two days after Mr. Kerry arrived, Mr. Zarif took a quick trip to Tehran, ostensibly for consultations. Most important, he returned with Mr. Salehi on his plane. The atmosphere at the Coburg Palace was tense. But on July 4, the Iranians broke the ice by inviting the Americans for lunch, at which Mr. Zarif complained about ads in Tehran that were inveighing against the deal. Mr. Kerry talked about complaints he was getting from critics at home, who he said were attacking an agreement without even bothering to learn the details.

But the talks dragged on. The Iranians appeared to think they could exploit a deadline for submitting a finished accord to Congress for a 30-day review. The deadline was July 9. “It was working against us,” one diplomat said. “The Iranians saw that deadline and they were convinced we would give in on key details to avoid the longer review.”

At the White House, Mr. Obama, monitoring the talks every few hours, was getting concerned about a narrative that he and Mr. Kerry wanted a deal too much — three mornings in a row Mr. Obama reminded his aides, “I don’t need this.” They were not certain what he meant, but they had a theory: After big victories in the Supreme Court on health care and the gay rights, he could afford to be patient.

The days ticked by, with halting progress. Mr. Moniz finished the nuclear details, often in meetings in the impressive stone basement of the Coburg, built from the ramparts of old Vienna. The negotiators called it Fordo because, if you ignored the 60,000 wine bottles, it looked a little like Iran’s underground enrichment center.

The last stretch was taken up largely with the wording of a United Nations Security Council resolution that would lay out the terms of the arms embargo. Finally, on Tuesday, the agreement was announced.

When the photo ops were over, the seven foreign ministers who had negotiated it met for the last time. Each spoke briefly about the importance of the moment. Mr. Kerry spoke last, but then added a personal coda. Choking up, he recalled going off to Vietnam as a young naval officer and said he never wanted to go through that again. He emerged committed, he said, to using diplomacy to avoid the horrors of war.

Correction: July 16, 2015

Because of an editing error, earlier versions of picture captions with this article reversed the identities of Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader. Another picture, depicting Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, omitted a caption identifying him.

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(via NY Times)