June 28, 2015


Amid intense talks, US and Iran shift from foes to frenemies (BRADLEY KLAPPER AND MATT LEE June 28, 2015, Yimes of Israel)

For a relationship that was frozen after the 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent US Embassy hostage crisis, the long hours spent in nuclear negotiations clearly have helped each side build a grudging understanding of one another. Although neither will use the word trust, for the first time in decades, US-Iranian ties have in some ways "normalized." [...]

The discussions gained steam after Hassan Rouhani's election as Iran's president behind promises to take his country on a more moderate course and end its isolation. But the outreach in each direction grew slowly, and both sides closely guarded preparations for a historic telephone call in September 2013 between Rouhani and President Barack Obama. Two months later, world powers and Iran reached the first of two interim nuclear agreements.

Since then, the interactions between Kerry and Zarif, and the two countries' other negotiators, have expanded dramatically. They regularly chat in hotel breakfast halls before their daily discussions, hold regular calls and coordinate schedules.

At their previous meeting in May, Kerry and Zarif even bantered in front of reporters about democratic progress in Nigeria, another country engulfed by insurgency but one far removed from the battlegrounds of the Middle East.

Kerry, having just arrived in Geneva from the African nation, called the inauguration of a popularly elected president in Nigeria "very good historically for democracy." Zarif, whose government is routinely criticized by other countries and human rights groups for its democracy failings, offered his verdict: "They have serious difficulties."

But the limited snippets of public conversation often have been more personal in nature.

In March, Kerry began a meeting by offering condolences to Rouhani after his mother died and wished the Iranians a happy Persian New Year with the traditional declaration of "Nowruz Mubarak." Later, he approached Rouhani's brother, a member of the Iranian negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland, and hugged him.

On some occasions, the perceived coziness that has emerged has had repercussions for the Iranians.

When Zarif was photographed walking across a Geneva bridge with Kerry, hard-liners accused him of catering to the enemy. Shortly afterward, stories appeared in Iran's press with anonymous officials talking about Zarif losing his temper with Kerry in private meetings, as if to make amends.

They also have spoken about bike riding -- a regular pursuit of Kerry's during the nuclear talks until a crash last month in France that broke his leg. Zarif, who was then dealing with a recurring back issue, called Kerry to commiserate.

And the good will has spread to others in the negotiating team.

For example, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi, both MIT-trained physicists, have struck up their own understanding and, by all accounts, a well-functioning relationship. Salehi isn't in Vienna because of illness.

US allies also aren't entirely pleased as the warming to Iran has coincided with a fraying of some of America's long-standing partnerships in the region. Washington clearly remains light years closer to Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, but their coolness or outright hostility to the Iran talks has taken a toll. For the Obama administration, it has created the strange dynamic of sometimes finding it easier to discuss nuclear matters with Tehran.

Posted by at June 28, 2015 7:52 AM

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