Far From Geneva, Iran Nuclear Talks Continue


By Owen Matthews /

The talks in Geneva to broker a deal with Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program have ground to a halt without agreement. But a secret meeting of Iranian, Israeli and Chinese military generals in a chateau in France promises to find a means to solve the remaining issues.

Outside, in the Burgundian night, only the barking of foxhounds and the trickle of fountains broke the countryside silence. But inside the Chateau de Selore a loud, convivial and most unusual dinner was in full swing. Around the table were former generals from Iran, Israeli and China, as well as elder statesmen from the U.S., France and Australia.

Toasts – in orange juice for the Iranian delegate, Burgundy wine for the rest – were drunk to peace and prosperity. But the purpose of the back-channel meeting was a deadly serious one: to untangle some of the thorniest obstacles on the road to a grand nuclear deal between Iran and the United Nations.

In Geneva this week, negotiators came closer to a deal on curbing Iran’s rogue nuclear program than at any time during the past 13 years. For the first time, Iran’s representatives have made key concessions – most importantly agreeing not to enrich uranium beyond 5 percent purity, enough for nuclear power but not for bomb-making.

Those talks, between the foreign ministers of the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – the so-called P5+1 – ended inconclusively on Sunday after France insisted that the Iranians stop work on a small nuclear reactor at Arak.

But the private talks at the Chateau de Selore, hosted by Jean-Christophe Iseux von Pfetten, a French aristocrat who serves as an adviser to China’s Central Committee, have opened an important back-channel for the exchange of ideas and an avenue for compromises between the various actors.

Last week’s talks have already played a role in resolving one of the most vexing sticking points for the Geneva talks – the U.S.’s insistence that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency be allowed access to any site, civilian or military, inside Iran for random inspections.

Key to the success of any nuclear deal is finding an inspections regime that Iran’s new leadership can take home without losing face.

“We saw the work of [weapons]inspectors in Iraq – they searched everywhere, including the President’s Palace,” said a former top Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander who attended the talks. “They found nothing, but started bombing Iraq anyway. We cannot accept this.”

But Iran’s representative indicated that his country might be willing to accept inspections teams led by nationals of “neutral” countries – notably by the Chinese, who agreed in principle to back the idea. Random inspections of military sites by Americans and their allies would be seen as “an unacceptable violation of Iran’s sovereignty,” said the Iranian representative. But even Iran’s hardliners could come to accept inspections by “third-party” nationals.

“We have an opportunity to create a regime of real inspections which will be acceptable to the Iranians and to the rest of the world,” says Robert Hawke, former Prime Minister of Australia, who moderated the discussion.

Crucial to any breakthrough on the long-deadlocked Iranian nuclear talks is a shift in attitudes inside Iran. Newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that he wants to strike a deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear program and end crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations under strong pressure from the United States.

But while Barack Obama has taken a major political risk in seeking compromise with Tehran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains deeply skeptical of Iran’s true intentions.

Other Israelis, however, are more hopeful – including General Doron Avital, former commander of Israel’s Special Forces and Knesset Defense Committee member who attended the Burgundy meeting. “Iran is turning West,” says Avital. “I think there has been a strategic shift and not just a tactical one.”

Avital also confirmed that many members of Israel’s security establishment, including military intelligence commander Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and recently-retired national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, are also convinced that Iran is willing to strike a deal. “We see a new constructive attitude,” on the Iranian side, said former French defense minister Michèle Alliot-Marie.

The Selore meeting showed an extraordinary level of cordiality between old enemies. The early mornings were punctuated by howls as middle-aged generals slipped into the chateau’s chilly pond for a dip; initial coldness quickly gave way to swapping anecdotes of wars in Lebanon and memories of the Iranian revolution. There was even talk of Iran’s future strategic partnership with the West and Israel against the Sunni powers of the Gulf – fanciful stuff today, but a sign of how far thinking can go when a deal is close.

“The atmosphere was warm and very friendly,” says Pfetten. “It is extraordinary to see a senior Israeli general sitting down with a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander in friendship.”

China’s role in talks reflects a growing realization by Beijing that China must take a more active role Middle Eastern peacemaking in order to guarantee its own energy security. Nearly 70 percent of China’s oil imports come from the Persian Gulf, and China is Iran’s largest trading partner.

As the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan and becomes independent from Middle Eastern oil thanks to shale gas, China is playing an increasing role in regional diplomacy. In May, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were invited to Beijing, and Chinese representatives at the Burgundy talks indicated that China was willing to take an active role in a future inspections regime of Iran’s nuclear program – though they insisted that it should remain under the umbrella of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Geneva process is set to resume in November. But what’s clear is that Iran’s new leaders badly need a deal on sanctions as the economic consequences eat into their popularity. And it’s also clear that there are men and women of goodwill on both sides who are willing to sit down and talk about radical new futures rather than the past.


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