France sneaks into the Geneva US-Iran talks to claim its business share in Tehran

Mohammed Javad Zarif

Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Afairs and Security Policy (EC Audiovisual Services)

The just-concluded bilateral talks between the US and Iran, held Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, can be determinant for the future, shaping of a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the West. The talks were announced last Saturday and indeed took place during a decisive time, after a hot winter of discussions and right before the start of another round of multilateral negotiations between Iran and the world powers in Vienna, from June 16 to 20. The content of the Geneva talks is rather huge.

We should say that the talks seemed to be very important from the very first minute, when the US State Department significantly announced that the American delegation would have included William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, and Jacob J. Sullivan, the national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. A few hours later, the Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Araqchi, made another important revelation, which put the European Union under the spotlight in this delicate phase. “Tomorrow’s meeting will be tripartite. Helga Schmidt, the deputy of EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, will be present as well,” Araqchi said.
The meetings were described as “consultations” rather than “negotiations”, and came “at an important juncture of the negotiations, and they will give us a timely opportunity to exchange views,” a senior administration official – who declined to be identified – said in a statement.

The situation after the two-day talks seems to be a bit controversial. What appears is that in the beginning, especially on Monday, there was some kind of optimistic feeling about the meeting, when the leading Iranian negotiator described the first day’s talks as “positive and constructive”. The Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Araqchi as saying that, after the first five hours of talks with the American delegation on Monday, “the dialogue with the United States took place in a positive climate and was constructive”.

Meanwhile something else happened, something that deserves careful analysis: the French Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius announced that also direct talks between France and Iran will be held this week. “Bilateral discussions between France and Iran will take place on Wednesday,” Fabius said on Monday at a news conference in Algiers. IRNA reported Abbas Araqchi to say that the Islamic Republic planned to hold other bilateral talks as well with the other world powers, true, but those meetings were not in the leaders’ agenda when Geneva talks began.

An explanation to this “French turn” might be in the fact that the other P5+1 countries – especially the Europeans – allegedly didn’t like very much this private US / Iran meeting, and therefore claimed their share in this. Not even the last-minute participation of the EU, with the participation of Catherine Ashton, could change this feeling. “The Americans gave us notice about these talks and we also said we would have talks with the Iranians, Fabius announced on Monday. The fact that a senior US administration official cared to say that the talks “will give us a timely opportunity to exchange views in the context of the next P5+ 1 round in Vienna”, on Saturday, might prove that the US have felt a bit of tension.

This goes with previously announced separate discussions that Iran is holding with Russia in Rome today. The risk here is just that all this private discussions between the P5+1 countries and Iran – which are still a good thing, as long as they bring positive contributions to global stability– could jeopardize the negotiation process, and make it more fragile.

Geneva talks are important because they were indeed a bid to rescue faltering negotiations to end a huge dispute, as pre-set to reach a comprehensive deal on 20 July, which will limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of international economic sanctions. Last winter was crucial for the Iranian nuclear question, with the US and Iran reaching the first formal agreement in 34 years. That happened always in Geneva, on 24 November 2013, under the name of Geneva interim agreement, officially titled the “Joint Plan of Action”.

The pact, formally signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries, consists of a short-term freeze of portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange of reduced economic sanctions on the middle-eastern country. The implementation of the agreement began on 20 January 2014 and then Senior Officials of the P5+1 and Iran met again in February in Vienna and agreed on a framework for future negotiations. The next round of the nuclear talks between Iran and six major powers took place again in Vienna last month, but ran into difficulties, with each side accusing the other of having unrealistic demands in negotiations. Especially Iran criticized Washington saying that the US have made excessive demands beyond the agreements made in the previous rounds.

What is sure is that both the US and Iran are making concrete efforts to bridge the differences after 40 years of silence, and so are trying to press hard to complete the longstanding dispute. The July 20 deadline is here, but there are positive signs anyway. Abbas Araqchi said on Monday that he remained optimistic about meeting the deadline, forecasting the prospect of a six month extension of the agreement “so the negotiations can continue,” Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.

The Geneva talks confirmed the need for secondary steps to close big questions between Iran and the West, but also showed that this is not an intimate exclusive business, between Tehran and Washington.

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