Fear and Boredom in Vienna

Letter From the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

Police stand in front of the venue of diplomatic talks in Vienna July 13, 2014. (Courtesy Reuters)

A distance of only 100 feet, the width of a courtyard and a narrow street, separates Vienna’s Palais Coburg hotel -- where top diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States spent two weeks earlier this month negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program -- and the Vienna Marriott hotel -- where almost all of the journalists covering the talks were staying. However, for the duration of the summit, the distance between speculation and fact, rumor and reality, to say nothing of the gaps between the negotiating parties, was far greater than could be bridged with a simple stroll.

Since February, the Coburg has served as ground zero for the intensive nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). The negotiations are geared toward achieving a comprehensive deal to follow the interim agreement signed in Geneva last November. The final deal could permanently allay international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and offer Iran a chance to re-enter the global economic, if not political, system.

Coburg itself was originally designed as a palace for Austria’s former Habsburg dynasty, although a member of the Iranian negotiating team told me that staying there often felt like a prison sentence. Amid the intense negotiating sessions, diplomats were granted only intermittent reprieves from their work, during which senior members of the Iranian delegation would embark on a so-called prison walk. Far from a leisurely stroll on the charming streets of the Austrian capital, however, the delegates would be driven by a police-escorted motorcade to a secluded path by the Wien River, where they would enjoy a brisk 45-minute walk surrounded by zealous Austrian bodyguards. The procession amazed the occasional local bicyclist, who would try to capture the moment on his or her cell phone.

The stifling atmosphere at the Coburg may explain why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, upon arriving in Vienna on the second weekend of the talks, chose to stay instead at the Marriott. In the two days he spent there, Kerry regularly shuttled on foot between the two hotels, and it was tempting to deduce some symbolic meaning from his determined strides through the city.

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