When groggy diplomats announced the successful completion of the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna on July 14, it ended one of the longest continuous negotiating processes in diplomatic history and produced what may be the longest (at 159 pages) and most complex international arms-control agreement ever.
The final round of negotiations was one of the most heavily covered stories, other than major wars, in recent decades, with nearly 600 journalists accredited for the full 18 days of talks. But the real story of how the United States and Iran finally came to agreement in Vienna, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has yet to be told. Inevitably, the few public briefings, statements, and leaks to the media from the US side provided a politically convenient view of the state of negotiations rather than a reliable account of what was actually going on.
Piecing together a reasonably complete account of the Vienna negotiations will take many years. The account that follows is an effort to provide at least a first approximation of how the two sides reached an agreement. It is based on a series of informal meetings in Vienna over two weeks with two Iranian officials close to the negotiations. They cannot be identified under the terms of those meetings, but they were both in a position to provide authoritative information on how the negotiations were unfolding, at least from the Iranian government’s perspective.
Of course, some of what the two Iranian officials said about the negotiations reflected a desire to cast them in a light favorable to Iranian interests. Nevertheless, they provided crucial information about key turning points in the talks—information that did not serve any apparent Iranian tactical objective and yet was not reported in commercial news media. The two officials also provided valuable insight into Iranian calculations about the negotiations.
The story that I have assembled includes several surprising revelations. It shows that in the first few days of negotiations, the most important and difficult issues were quickly resolved, in large part because of moves by the Obama administration to reconcile the interests of the two sides. But it also reveals that the administration hardened its line and even slowed progress in the final stage of the talks, mainly for domestic political reasons.
Reaching a Deal on Lifting Sanctions
When Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met at Vienna’s Palais Coburg on Saturday, June 27, to begin what was generally recognized as the final round of negotiations, it was in the context of a distinctly pessimistic view of the prospects for agreement presented by the US news media. Three days before that meeting, The Washington Post reported that demands made by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a speech that week “could undercut the ability of Iranian negotiators to make concessions” as the June 30 deadline approached. A before the meeting, a “senior Western diplomat” in Vienna was quoted by Reuters as saying that “on major issues there are still big differences.” And the day after the meeting, The New York Times reported that the two sides “remained divided over how to limit and monitor Tehran’s nuclear program and even on how to interpret the preliminary agreement they reached two months ago.”