The Cable

“I’m Not Buying It For a Second”: Congressman Dings Kerry’s Account of Iran Talks

The U.S. and Iran blamed one another for imperiling political talks aimed at ending the West’s nuclear standoff with Tehran, leaving allies and U.S. lawmakers with a choice: believe Washington’s version of the story, or put their faith in Tehran’s. Back in D.C., a number of U.S. members of Congress weren’t sure who to trust, ...

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks to the press upon his arrival in Geneva on November 8, 2013, on the second day of talks with Iran on their nuclear programme. World powers and Iran have yet to reach a deal on Iran's nuclear programme but are working hard to do so, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on November 8. "There is not an agreement at this point," Kerry said shortly after arriving in Geneva to help seal what is hoped to be a landmark with Tehran, but stressed that the six world powers leading the talks were "working hard." AFP PHOTO / POOL / JASON REEED

The U.S. and Iran blamed one another for imperiling political talks aimed at ending the West’s nuclear standoff with Tehran, leaving allies and U.S. lawmakers with a choice: believe Washington’s version of the story, or put their faith in Tehran’s.

Back in D.C., a number of U.S. members of Congress weren’t sure who to trust, with some openly doubting the American account. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that France and the other members of the so-called "P5+1" powers were united in their offer to Iran — and that it was Tehran that "couldn’t take" the deal.

But Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable he’s skeptical.

"I’m not buying it for a second," he said. Kinzinger found the initial reports that France torpedoed the deal despite American support for it "more credible." 

"This looks like administration face-saving in wake of the French showing more spine than they had," he said. "And when the French are showing more spine than the Americans, that’s scary."

Rep. Steve Israel, (D-NY), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he wasn’t sure which account was more accurate.

"What’s important is that the initial deal didn’t go through because it was not a good deal," Israel, a staunch hawk on Iranian issues, told The Cable.

A little more than a day after a nuclear agreement seemed so close, major signs of trouble in landmark negotiations appeared on Monday. During a stop-off in Abu Dhabi, Kerry said that Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, had balked at the prospect of accepting a proposal that would place constraints on uranium enrichment and Iran’s construction of a heavy water reactor.

Zarif struck back, accusing Kerry on Twitter of misrepresenting the outcome of the talks, and suggesting that Washington had backtracked on a proposal it had floated as early as Thursday.

Zarif’s account suggests that the West’s draft was substantially altered during the talks. Interestingly, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to give credence to this sequence of events in remarks to Parliament on Monday. Hague did not single out France for raising objections to a deal. But he conceded that the initial draft of the interim agreement "had been amended in light of comments from various of the parties concerned." Ultimately, Hague said "a completely united position was put to the Iranians at the close of our discussions, so reports of vetoes by one country, or of obstruction by any country, should be seen in that light. We were all arguing for the same position and the same deal."

Despite the squabbling, senior diplomats said that they remained upbeat about the prospects for progress. Hague characterized two days of negotiations on an interim pact as "intensive" "complex" and "detailed."

"Our aim is to produce an interim first step agreement with Iran that can then create the confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement," he said. "The talks broke up without reaching that interim agreement, because some gaps between the parties remain. While I cannot go into the details of the discussions while the talks continue I can say that most of those gaps are now narrow, and many others were bridged altogether during the negotiations."

There were other signs of progress. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reached a "roadmap for cooperation" with Iranian leaders in Tehran that would provide inspectors "managed access" to the country’s uranium mine at Gachine and to a facility that helps cool a heavy water reactor currently under construction at Arak. Western governments fear that reactor could be used to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb. But the accord does not guarantee IAEA inspectors access to several military installations, including the military complex at Parchin, where Iran conducts atomic research.

"I think its really significant that they are getting managed access to Gachine" and the heavy water facility, said David Albright, a physicist who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, adding the IAEA deal shows that Iran is prepared to show greater transparency. "The downside is they didn’t deal at all with the main issue with Iran: addressing IAEA concerns about past and possible ongoing work on military nuclear programs."

Kerry and other senior diplomats with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia abruptly flew to Geneva last week with the hope of signing an interim agreement that would require Iran to cap its enrichment of high grade uranium and pledge to pause any future plans to operate a heavy water reactor in Arak. "The fact is the draft was almost agreed between the Iranians and the Americans, the Germans, [and] the Brits. The Russians and the Chinese said they had no problem, they were ready to sign it," said a source close to the Iranian delegation. "It was the French who brought unexpected issue about heavy water at Arak. We don’t know what happened."

Fabius, who made it clear he couldn’t support the draft under consideration, pressed Kerry in a late Saturday night meeting to toughen the Iranian terms, according to the Guardian.  "Fabius insisted on two key points in the drafting of an interim agreement with Iran: there should be no guarantees in the preamble about the country’s right to enrich uranium; and work would have to stop on a heavy-water nuclear reactor," the Guardian reported. "Western officials conceded that unity had been achieved only on the last night of the negotiations, leaving little time for the Iranians to respond; much of the preceding 60 hours of talks had been among the P5+1 group seeking a common position."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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