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Margaret Warner reports from Geneva

November 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Warner reports from Geneva on the ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear capability. The diplomats are struggling over the actual language of the text. Editor's note: This interview was recorded at 10:30 p.m. local Geneva time, before the agreement was reached.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Joining us now from Geneva, Switzerland is Margaret Warner. She’s been covering the Iranian nuclear negotiations throughout the week. So, bring us up to speed. What happened today or didn’t happen today?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hari, as you just said, even though the six foreign ministers all flew in — Secretary Kerry, the British, the French, the Chinese, Germans, Russians are all here for these talks.

They spent a whole daily laboring at this and have been unable to clench a deal and right at this moment, which is about 10:30 here in

Geneva, just the six are in yet another — this time a post-dinner meeting.

They had a three-hour meeting earlier and apparently, everybody is struggling over the actual language of this text.

Iran’s foreign minister said earlier today that every word and expression has its own meaning and requires caution.

Then his deputy foreign minister in the middle of the afternoon said — at one point he called this breathtakingly difficult and again, he referred to words and text.

And he said, you know, that we’re making more progress he said than yesterday, but it is not at all clear that we’ll have this done tonight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So if both sides want a deal, why is this proving so difficult?

MARGARET WARNER: You know, that’s a very good question, Hari, because I think it invites one to step back.

In other words, yes, they are arguing about, it’s reported, what will happen with the plutonium heavy water reactor, the one you really can’t bomb once its operational because it will spread deadly radiation.

There is still apparently some hassle about the wording of Iran’s enrichment activities — but those are just small– relatively small specifics.

What’s really at stake here is each side wants to maintain leverage for the big deal they are supposed to negotiate in the next six months to a year.

With all the attention we focus on this first phase deal, I really is just the tip of the iceberg and the idea was simply for each side to give enough to sort of freeze Iran’s program at least in place, relieve a few sanctions to buy time on the clock, which is what everyone says, so that Iran won’t achieve nuclear breakout before they can negotiate a final, final deal.

So each side wants to maintain a lot of painful leverage over theother. So for Iran, that means, okay, maybe we’ll freeze many parts or all of our program, but we don’t want to not still look frankly like a threat, and the U.S. and the West is willing to ease some sanctions, but they don’t want to relax the ones that Iran really cares about, the oil, trading sanctions, the one that basically have kept them out of the global financial system.

Because they are afraid that once — if the U.S. does that and the West does that, Iran won’t have any incentive to continue with the second phase of the negotiations.

So there’s — it’s really tactical and strategic and political, as we know, both Iranians and Americans have hardliners at home they have to satisfy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So if we see no deal reached here, we kind of saw tuis two weeks ago. There was a tremendous amount of energy, a buildup, if there is no deal reached here now, what does that do to the momentum of this conversation?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hari, it makes it very, very difficult. Calling in the foreign ministers last time was like, okay, we’re really there. We’re almost there, bringing in the big guns and they got so close And then they failed.

So this time was supposed to be the time and the ministers weren’t even supposed to come in until it was really close and they were supposed to correct a final version. Instead, after three days of talks, it didn’t quite get far enough. They agreed to come in.

It is hard — I mean, it’s not impossible to go to that well a third time but each time you pull out your big card or your big gun it diminishes its cloud.

At the same time, what is keeping the parties going is: What’s the alternative? So the West looks and says well, for Iran, the alternative is to continue to this kind of uranium enrichment program, plutonium development program to get ever closer to that breakout point where they can be basically nuclear ready.

And for Iran it would mean if there is no deal, that the U.S. congress for one is going to impose even tougher sanctions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he’s ready to let a bill move starting December 9th.

So the alternative is really, really potentially ugly because there is the also the threat of potentially an Israeli or U.S. strike. So that is what I think is keeping the parties on the table.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner joining us from Geneva, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Hari.