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Why did the Iran nuclear talks fall apart despite signs of hope?

November 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Talks to negotiate Iran's nuclear program stalled over the weekend when world powers failed to strike an interim agreement. Gwen Ifill talks to chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner about whether hope for a deal is dead or alive and next goals for Secretary of State John Kerry.
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 GWEN IFILL: Margaret joins me now.

So, Margaret, last we talked about this, everything was about to happen over the weekend. Now it collapsed in what looks like a welter of finger-pointing. What happened?

MARGARET WARNER:  You see that there are competing versions. We just heard Secretary Kerry say it was Iran that could not accept the deal, we were united. You had France already objecting.

But the — Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, tweeted out today a couple times: No amount of spinning will change what went on in the P5.

And another point he said: Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted the agreement overnight Thursday and Friday? There is a little finger-pointing.

I think from the reporting I have been able to do — and I caution to say that neither Secretary Kerry nor Undersecretary Sherman are back yet, so a lot of the principals aren’t here — that it was both. In other words, one, we know they felt close to a deal because the plan in advance was, Secretary Kerry wasn’t going to fly in until they sort of got it down to one issue, which then he could come and negotiate at the end. He came.

All the other foreign ministers did. Two, it’s clear that the French foreign minister raised this objection having to do at least with this Arak heavy water reactor. And then, three, it’s clear that by late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, somehow the P5 — that is, the U.S. and its partners — cobbled something together which then Iran balked at.

What we don’t know is, was it because Iran felt the West had essentially moved the goalposts, or did they essentially agree to disagree for domestic reasons?

GWEN IFILL: Was the U.S. surprised that it felt apart?

MARGARET WARNER:  Yes.

And, Gwen, I was reminded that last time we talked on Thursday night, you said to me, what about the other members of this team?

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER:  And I sort of say, well, yes, of course, they’re all having their own talks with Iran, but really the U.S. and Iran have been the main antagonists here, so essentially implying that that’s what counted.

Well, I was reflecting that’s the way the administration saw it, clearly a miscalculation, clearly a miscalculation. And the U.S. was — it’s no surprise that France has always been the most hawkish in their private discussions, based on their long history of negotiating with Iran. They become very close to Israel and so on.

But to be publicly blindsided by Foreign Minister Fabius, that did come, I’m told, as a surprise. And now the administration has to figure out how to not let that happen again.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s clear that Israel was not — Netanyahu wasn’t ever going to be on board. How much of this was changed because of his insistence that this was a bad deal, not only to his allies who were there in Geneva, but also here in the U.S. dealing with our domestic concerns about Israel?

MARGARET WARNER:  I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s objections and role cannot be overstated or underestimated, or shouldn’t be, here,.

He’s had a drumbeat, as you said, of talking to people not only in the administration, but to people on the Hill. And he confirmed suspicions yesterday he called most of these European leaders. And he went from expressing — saying, well, don’t do a premature deal, which is one that would enable Iran to keep enriching, to yesterday saying he had been given the outlines of the deal by his American sources and that indeed was what the deal was going to do.

Now, a lot more details will emerge, but I haven’t heard anyone say that in fact he’s dead wrong about that, in other words, some of the fine points to what level they might be able to continue enriching during this pause.

GWEN IFILL: I was interested to see U.S. senators coming out and saying and even governors coming out and saying this is a bad deal over the last two days, which suggested that someone was suggesting to them this was a bad deal who was not in the administration.

MARGARET WARNER:  Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So when John Kerry gets back to the United States from this trip, what’s his first goal, to win them over?

MARGARET WARNER:  He’s going — exactly. He’s going right to the Hill.

Tomorrow, he’s swearing in Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan. I don’t know exactly when he gets home. But it’s either late tonight, early tomorrow. But, Wednesday, he’s giving a classified briefing — I’m told it’s going to be classified — to the Senate Banking Committee. And, as you and I discussed Thursday, it’s on the Banking Committee that actually Senator Corker and some of its allies on both sides of the aisle want to hamstring the president from being able to even offer an easing of sanctions through a waiver provision in the legislation.

In other words, one, some are threatening to add that new — new sanctions during the negotiations. But others are saying, well, at the very least, we should remove the president’s ability to deal with the legislation we have passed. And, if so, what reports are that the U.S. put on the table, that is, to unfree some funds overseas, wouldn’t be able to be unfrozen.

GWEN IFILL: Is this dead or alive, briefly?

MARGARET WARNER:  I think it’s — I think it’s still alive, Gwen. I think that the secretary obviously has a lot of work to do both on the Hill and with the U.S. negotiating partners and with Iran in nine days.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Margaret Warner, thank you very much.