As the world held its breath, a historic deal is reached

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) hugs his French counterpart Laurent Fabius after a landmark deal in Geneva, (AFP, Fabrice Coffrini)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) hugs his French counterpart Laurent Fabius after a landmark deal in Geneva, (AFP, Fabrice Coffrini)

It was a scene we’ve seen before: the world’s top diplomats huddled for crunch Iran nuclear talks as the world held its breath, but this time there was a sigh of relief.

At 2:00 am (0100 GMT) at the posh Intercontinental hotel in Geneva, lavishly dressed party guests at a karaoke bar stepped daintily past bedraggled and sleep-deprived journalists on their way through the lobby, when suddenly word began spreading: There is a deal.

It took five days of marathon talks, with very little official information trickling out, leaving reporters to fend for themselves in a sea of contradictory rumours about what progress, if any, was being made towards a first-step agreement to end a decade-long dispute between world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme.

Just two weeks ago, it was a similar scene: reporters occupied the lobby at the five-star hotel, sipping $10 cups of coffee as they awaited news on progress in the talks.

That time too expectations soared when US Secretary of State John Kerry and his British, French, German and Russian counterparts unexpectedly weighed in on the intense diplomatic talks over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, only to crash when the illustrious parties had to go home empty handed.

This time around the talks were if possible an even more of a rollercoaster ride, starting off on Wednesday under the shadow of negative or cautious comments from all sides.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted his country would not retreat “from its rights,” prompting French President Francois Holland to sternly lecture Tehran to “provide answers and not provocations”.

Kerry also stressed Wednesday that the United States would not back an agreement that simply let Iran “buy time”.

But there is public posturing and then there is what goes on behind closed doors, according to one European negotiator, who insisted Wednesday such “shows of virility” would not interfere with the discussions.

And indeed, by Friday, hopes began rising as it became clear that the countries’ top diplomats would again join the talks, this time also including China’s Win Yang, leading many observers to conclude that they would only make the trip if it meant signing a deal.

There was meanwhile some confusion over Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov‘s motives for setting off the influx of top diplomats when he decided to make the trip uninvited.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who hosted the talks, “is always happy to see Minister Lavrov,” was all her spokesman would tell AFP when asked about her reaction to his sudden arrival.

Had Lavrov come for the Iran talks alone, or perhaps for a meeting at the United Nations in Geneva on Monday to prepare for a peace conference on war-torn Syria?

“He came for Iran,” his spokeswoman said, adding though that he would meet with UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi at the weekend.

Whatever his reasons, Lavrov arrived stressing that the talks presented a “real opportunity”, drawing ever more optimistic analyses.

But as the other foreign ministers began arriving early Saturday, each stressing the difficulties that remained, the narrative shifted again with predictions the sides were too far apart to reach an agreement.

Amid a virtual information black-out at the Intercontinental, reporters took breaks from fighting for power outlets and being shooed off the floor by offended hotel staff to wager over which way the talks would go.

Up until the last minute, an equal number of rumours floated around that the sides had reached an agreement and that the deal was dead.

Finally at dawn, the ministers for the six world powers joined their Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN building to sign the landmark deal.
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