Tuesday / November 20.
HomeMiddle EastReporter's Notebook: Discussions Shift to Endgames as Nuclear Negotiations Drag On

Reporter's Notebook: Discussions Shift to Endgames as Nuclear Negotiations Drag On

Reporter’s Notebook
By DAVID E. SANGER and MICHAEL R. GORDON
July 11, 2015

VIENNA — Absent real pronouncements 11 days after the hard-and-fast deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran, people have begun looking to the balconies to determine if a deal is imminent. Well, one balcony: Mohammad Javad Zarif’s, Iran’s foreign minister, who on Saturday spent a lot of time in the sun.

As the diplomacy churned on, Mr. Zarif was reading through what appeared to be a draft agreement — 20 pages, with 80 pages or so of annexes — and allowed himself to smile broadly.

“I think we’ll stay in Vienna until the end of Sunday; we’re negotiating hard,” Mr. Zarif was quoted as saying by an Iranian reporter in response to a shouted question. Missing were the pointed accusations of a few days back that the United States was reneging on past pledges, or opening new issues.

Then there is Mr. Kerry himself, uncharacteristically Sphinx-like in his public pronouncements, occasionally appearing outside the hotel, laying his crutches against a small table, and declaring, repeatedly, that while talks were “serious,” the Iranians needed to make some fundamental political decisions.

Mr. Kerry expressed caution in a post on Twitter after a Saturday morning meeting with Mr. Zarif, writing of some “difficult issues to resolve.” But Mr. Kerry had nothing to say Saturday evening after what appeared to be a potentially pivotal session with his Iranian counterpart.

“Now that everything is on the table, the moment has come to decide,” Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said in a statement to Reuters.

For anyone seeking diplomatic tea leaves, there were others on Saturday. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke to students in Tehran, but did not lay down new “red lines” as he did a few weeks ago, when he talked about how no foreigners, inspectors included, would be allowed into military bases.

Mr. Zarif and his team have been walking that back delicately — directly contradicting the Supreme Leader can be a poor career decision — by saying that under an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran will implement, there is precedent for “managed access” to some sensitive military sites where there may be evidence of suspected nuclear activity.

The ayatollah’s only warning to the students was that “the struggle with the arrogant power does not end after a deal.”

There was no doubt about which arrogant power he had in mind. But the implicit assumption — that a deal was underway — seemed another part of his effort to signal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other hard-liners in Iran that a deal could well happen soon. And so they must find other areas, at least for a while, to pursue their antiarrogant-power strategy.

On Saturday evening, after foreign ministers from France and Britain flew in, Mr. Kerry met with all of his negotiating partners, presumably to review how the deal was shaping up, and what last-minute hitches needed to be worked through.

None of this body language assures there will not be a last-minute hitch. In 18 months of negotiating, there have been more turns than in the Vienna classic “The Third Man,” which is screened regularly here, a reminder of another era when the city was better known for intrigue than diplomacy. But for the first time, the Iranians, the Americans and the Europeans are all talking about endgames.

A Test of Endurance

Republicans running for the presidential nomination have been lambasting Mr. Kerry for wanting a deal too much, and even some Democrats, meeting President Obama at a White House social gathering this past week, said they would not vote for it unless they understood all sections, even those kept secret. But whatever the result, it is hard to watch the secretary of state without regarding him as an ironman in a negotiation that has tested his formidable endurance.

Saturday was Mr. Kerry’s 15th consecutive day at the talks, the most time he has ever continuously spent in one foreign destination since arriving at the State Department. Perhaps more significant, it is longer than he spent in the hospital after the bicycle accident that fractured his leg.

He intersperses the negotiations with physical therapy, and some afternoons he takes a break so that his motorcade can return him to the Imperial Hotel — a Vienna landmark that has hosted many presidents and secretaries of state. Though the hotel does not advertise it, Hitler stayed there in 1938, returning to the city where he had been a day laborer.

Mr. Kerry has held more than 50 meetings here, many with Mr. Zarif, but at some of them trying to keep Russia and China on board. Henry Kissinger spent more time on shuttle diplomacy, but he did not spend more time in one place.

Drama in a New Setting

In Lausanne, Switzerland, where the framework for these negotiations was reached in early April, the reporters whose news organizations were willing to foot hefty bills stayed in the Beau Rivage Hotel, often in rooms next to the negotiators. It made for easy reporting, perhaps too easy in the minds of the American and European officials, as well as the Iranians, who all want to maintain the sanctity of the negotiating room.

In Vienna, it is a very different story. The Coburg Palace, where basement foundations show evidence of the last battles against the Ottoman Empire in 1683, has been as successful in repelling reporters as it was in repelling the Turks. Many journalists are working from an adjacent tent, where they are offered Austrian chocolates and ice cream in lieu of real information.

Many have escaped the tent to camp out in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, just across from the palace, where they have consumed prodigious amounts of “mélange,” an espresso-based Viennese coffee specialty. But wander a few blocks away, to the cathedral that dominates the city, or Mozart’s house or the many places Beethoven lived — he had a hard time making the rent — and tourists are largely tuned out to the drama playing out a few blocks away.