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.
Symbolism is all that the journalists and observers assembled in Vienna had to work with. Because all sides had agreed at the start of the nuclear negotiations in 2013 that they would not “negotiate in the press,” information about what transpired at the bargaining table has been scarce. The United States offers “background briefings” where very little of substance is revealed; the Iranians, for their part, provide occasional impromptu briefings, usually to the Iranian media, who obligingly translate the comments for their Western colleagues, or simply leave them to read the latest snippets on their Twitter feeds. Moreover, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who is the organizer of the talks, is famously media-shy (or perhaps media-phobic), so much so that she banned journalists from the Coburg altogether until the U.S. delegation intervened on behalf of reporters starved for information.
Bored journalists were quick to seize on any sign of movement in the talks, however flimsy. When Hossein Fereidoun, the brother and top aide of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, arrived at the Coburg on July 11, journalists speculated about his presence. Some said it was a signal that Tehran no longer trusted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to lead the negotiations, others that it showed Tehran’s desperation to close a deal before the July 20 deadline. The truth, perhaps unsurprisingly, was something else entirely. Fereidoun, who is an old friend of Zarif’s dating back to the years he spent as his deputy at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations about a decade ago, was sent to Vienna as a proxy for Rouhani (and, by extension, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei). The idea was to spare Zarif the inconvenience of having to travel back to Tehran to brief his superiors (briefing them via telephone or other digital means was out of the question: Coburg was assumed to have more bugs, of varying nationalities, in its rooms and corridors than a rundown tenement in New York City).
The prison-like atmosphere experienced by the Iranians was probably compounded by the fact that they took all their meals in a communal dining room set up adjacent to the main negotiating room at the Coburg. The Iranian embassy provided halal food (at least the meat dishes), and although the talks were happening in the middle of Ramadan, the Iranian delegation availed itself of the exemption from fasting granted to travelers (although they are required make up the lost days during the year). The dining room was a bright windowed space marginally less stuffy than elsewhere in the hotel and slightly more conducive to an open exchange of ideas and opinions, despite the presumed surveillance.
During lunch on the day he arrived, Fereidoun offered a reminder that what was being left unsaid during the negotiations could prove to be just as important as the technical details being discussed. He told me that the West must recognize that it will never have a better opportunity to clinch a nuclear agreement than the present moment, with his brother in the presidency and Zarif as the foreign minister. It appears that U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Kerry agree with this view, which is why they spent considerable political capital in extending the negotiations for another four months.
Another unspoken reality at the negotiations was that, although Tehran’s official interlocutor was the P5+1 group, the real conversation was between the United States and Iran. Given the history between the two countries, it should come as no surprise that the talks in Vienna failed to achieve a final agreement. Thirty-five years of animosity, mistrust, threats, missed opportunities, and in some cases mutual loathing, were not going to be overcome in a matter of days, or even months. It was always going to be easier for diplomats and politicians on both sides to maintain the status quo -- the United States sticking to its long-held position that Iran should “do as we say, or else,” and Iran sticking to its revolutionary credo that it would never bend to the will of a greater power -- than to try to change the existing order.
In turn, outside of the negotiations, it has become commonplace to claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” a sound bite originally provided by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and since echoed by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many others in Washington. But it is telling that few of the people who evoke the phrase have explained how they would define the parameters of a bad deal, or much more important, why it would be worse than the status quo.
The negotiations in Vienna have already revealed there is no deal that Netanyahu, at least some members of the U.S. Congress, and Iranian hardliners would not consider a bad one. And the Iranian government has insisted that, in the absence of a deal, it will remove the brakes on uranium enrichment and proceed with the development of heavy-water reactors and newer generation centrifuges. Inspections of Iran’s facilities would revert to the standard IAEA format (rather than the far more intrusive inspections under consideration, and already implemented under the interim agreement), and sanctions on Iran would be further strengthened by at least the United States and France, if not by other allies. At some point, the West will reach a breaking point -- the point at which Obama (or his successor) or Netanyahu (or his successor) decide that Iran is close to having a deliverable bomb if it wants one. At that point, they may be forced to make good on their promise to use “all options” to prevent Iran from ever taking that step.
For this reason -- the increased likelihood of war absent a deal -- negotiators in Vienna (if not the policymakers they report to) have quietly started to recognize that a so-called bad deal has to be better than the alternative. It is heartening that both the Iranian and U.S. governments have said publicly that they would like to agree on a deal. But over the next four months, both countries probably understand that reaching a comprehensive agreement will involve painful sacrifices. Obama, who has already conceded more than Congress or U.S. allies want him to, and Rouhani, who has conceded more than his Parliament or other power centers in Iran might want him to, will certainly need to yield even more in order to make a deal. Bottom lines may need to change, and red lines may have to move. (It isn’t as if Obama has never done the latter.)