Margaret Warner’s personal clue to whether to expect an Iranian nuclear deal

BY Margaret Warner  November 20, 2013 at 1:25 PM EST

Police stand guard outside the InterContinental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, where diplomats from six nations negotiating Iran’s nuclear future are staying this week. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images

GENEVA – There was little visibility in the fog hanging heavy over this Swiss city and its famed lake this morning, as bleary-eyed diplomats flew in for the latest round of talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. The haze was a fitting metaphor. The prospects for the US and five other world powers reaching a “preliminary deal” with Iran this week were just as hard to discern.

Everyone knows what’s in the cards — a “first step” agreement to freeze much of Iran’s uranium and plutonium programs, in return for a temporary lifting of a few economic sanctions. The idea is to buy 6 months of time to negotiate a final accord. If that fails, Iran can restart its nuclear program. The President can re-impose the US-led sanctions that are strangling Tehran’s economy, and if Congress has its way, impose additional ones too.

The questions today were obvious: Would the US and its European, Russian and Chinese partners avoid the messy internal dispute, triggered by the French, that torpedoed the last round 10 days ago? Had back-channel talks with Tehran resolved the hang-ups from that last encounter — specifically an impasse over continued construction on Iran’s Arak heavy water plutonium reactor, and its insistence that the world recognize Iran’s “right to enrich?”

Journalists and even delegation members were reduced to reading tea leaves. There were encouraging signs–the talks here have been front-loaded. Instead of starting tomorrow as scheduled, crucial discussions began today: first between the US delegation head, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, and her “P5+1″ partners; followed by a meeting between EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zharif; and finally a full-blown evening session ahead including all the parties.

But there were also not-so-encouraging signs: Just today, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei gave a fiery speech to thousands of his “Basij” militiamen, vowing that Iran would not surrender its nuclear prerogatives. “We insist we will not step back one iota from our rights” he declared. And the supreme leader revealed limits had been set on how far his negotiating team can go in the talks. He railed about American aggression, but then said he wanted “friendly” relations with the US. The Basij responded with the familiar chant: “Death to America.”

When it comes to tea leaves, only one is considered certain by Western sources. Unless an agreement is assured, Secretary of State John Kerry and his French, British, German, Chinese and Russian counterparts will not fly to bless the deal. “They don’t want a repeat of that egg-in-the-face moment,” said one European diplomat, when they all arrived for the scheduled “final day,” only to have French foreign minister Laurent Fabius publicly air his disputes with his partners, and send them all home empty-handed.

But I may be able to offer a personal clue to this guessing game. I arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel at 8 a.m — home to the US, European and Iranian delegations — only to be told that my week-old reservation would not be honored. “We aren’t able to confirm your reservation after all,” the rooms manager said in her most soothing voice. “You mean, you have my reservation but have decided not to honor it,” I retorted. She pleaded “overbooking.” But she finally fessed up, when I asked, “Have you been asked to save some rooms for someone important who may arrive later?” She gave a grimace and a wry smile. “Well, we do have obligations…and we are waiting to be told for sure.” (No worries. I’m not sleeping in a tent, but ensconced at a lakeside hotel much farther from the action.)

All this doesn’t mean that a deal is certain. Far from it. When I saw Undersecretary Sherman waiting to board the Tuesday night non-stop from Washington, she offered only this: “In negotiations like this, an agreement isn’t ‘done’ until it’s entirely done.” A good reason for Secretary Kerry to hedge his travel bets.