Middle East

Iran talks breach deadlines, red lines, bedtimes

A worker brings compact air conditioners to the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held, in Vienna, Austria on July 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR

VIENNA: As any parent knows, setting limits is important, especially at bedtime. In the Iran nuclear negotiations, however, the normal rules of diet, discipline and decorum do not always apply.

Diplomats describe the downsides of the talks, among them sleepless nights, separation from spouses and the difficulty of maintaining one’s diet, let alone waistline, amid the siren temptations of Vienna’s veal schnitzel and Sachertorte.

The U.S. delegation to the talks, which aim to restrain the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions against Iran, brings its own grub.

Seeking to inject some levity into a briefing about the nuclear diplomacy, a senior U.S. official this week catalogued the U.S. delegation’s snack habits.

Since the start of June, the team has gone through at least 4.5 kgs of strawberry Twizzlers liquorice, 13.5 kgs of mixed nuts and dried fruit, 9 kgs) of string cheese, 200 Rice Krispies treats (a mix of marshmallow, rice cereal and butter) and, on Monday alone, 3 liters of Zanoni & Zanoni gelato to celebrate a delegation birthday.

“We have been here enough to celebrate virtually every member of the team’s birthday in Vienna at least once,” said the official, saying the delegation was in the Austrian capital 11 times last year and at least half a dozen this year.

The U.S. experts, who deal in the granular details of nuclear physics and economic sanctions, have flown across the Atlantic 69 times since they began seeking to reach a final nuclear agreement with Iran in February 2014, the official said.

One calculates that he has flown 640,000 kilometers, roughly the equivalent of circumnavigating the earth 16 times.

Getting some sleep, whether in the air or on the ground, is always a challenge. The U.S. and Iranian sanctions teams were up until 3 a.m. Friday night negotiating.

The next day, July 4, the U.S. delegation celebrated the U.S. Independence Day holiday in Vienna for the second year in a row, dining al fresco on hamburgers and a U.S. flag-shaped cake at the Coburg Palais hotel where the talks take place amid 19th-century splendor.

“It’s intense and monastic,” a diplomat from another delegation, looking gaunt and exhausted, said of walking the halls of the palace, built by aristocrat and cavalry general Prince Ferdinand von Sachsen-Coburg between 1840 and 1845.

Another bemoaned the long hours and the near impossibility of getting out for dinner, saying he managed to get to a restaurant at 10:30 one night only to find disappointment.

“They let me in and then 15 minutes later they were closing up. Vienna doesn’t do itself justice by closing at 11,” he said.

One delegation opted to stay far from the Coburg this time.

“I like the reporters, but I didn’t want them jumping into the swimming pool asking me about the number of centrifuges,” said a diplomat.

Sadly, the distant hotel has drained its pool.

By all accounts, the talks have entered their most difficult phase and, at times, turned testy.

Western diplomats said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had a tense exchange about sanctions Monday night.

Iran’s official news agency IRNA went further, quoting unidentified Palais residents as saying the two could be heard shouting at each other during their one-on-one meeting.

Ministers escape as best they can. Having broken his leg in May, Kerry cannot cycle or stroll Vienna’s streets but has slipped away to sit in one of its parks, his tie loosened.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, an art connoisseur, has toured the Kunsthistorisches Museum, whose main collections are from Austria’s old Habsburg rulers and include Rembrandts, Vermeers and Rubenses.

Zarif and other Iranian negotiators visited an Islamic center in Vienna Monday after midnight to mark the death of Shiite Islam’s first imam, Ali, by weeping and praying.

No one seems to know when they will go home.

When Iran and six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – reached an interim deal in Nov. 23, 2013, it was supposed to last six months and a final deal to be done and dusted within a year.

The deadline has since been extended four times, including twice in the last two weeks.

One deadline that at one point seemed meaningful was 6 a.m. Friday, by which time the U.S. government had to submit any deal to the U.S. Congress to obtain an expedited, 30-day review.

However, with the latest extension – to midnight Friday – even that seems likely to fall by the wayside.

A Vienna waiter, whose business has surged along with his blood pressure, asked reporters when they were leaving. Met with blank stares, he remarked: “It’s a never-ending story.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2015, on page 9.




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