As Iran nuclear deadline passes, narrative battle heats up (Op-Ed)

Sharmine Narwani
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She is a former senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University and has a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University. Sharmine has written commentary for a wide array of publications, including Al Akhbar English, the New York Times, the Guardian, Asia Times Online,, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, BRICS Post and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @snarwani
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (2nd L) meet Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (2nd R) at a hotel in Vienna, Austria June 30, 2015. (Reuters / Carlos Barria)
It’s D-Day in Vienna, and the parties sitting across the negotiating table still haven’t ironed out terms to settle a 12-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Expect this deadline to be missed. And prepare for a lot of hot air to fill its space.

The “hot air” is calculated narrative-spin from a range of players that seek to 1) scuttle a deal, 2) increase pressure/create leverage at the negotiating table, or 3) frame an upcoming agreement in language favorable to one side.

And the Western media serves as a willing handmaiden in this petty game. Journalists thought nothing of casting a global question mark over Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s pre-arranged one-day detour to Tehran – even though his six P5+1 counterparts were also off “seeing to business.”

READ MORE: Iran, P5+1 extend interim nuclear deal until July 7 to win more time for talks

Western pundits weighed in en masse after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s June 23 speech, accusing him of rejecting key provisions of the Lausanne framework agreement and walking back from earlier promises.

“It’s not true at all,” says one senior foreign ministry official, appearing perplexed – if not skeptical – at these charges. “Iran is under severe pressure from Western media,” he insists, adding: “It’s not a fair trend. No one seems to care about what Iran is doing, what’s on the table. We just want a fair reflection of what is going on at these negotiations.”

If anything, the Iranians charge that the US team “seems to have experienced buyer’s remorse after Lausanne,” and backtracked on, or revisited, some already ‘resolved’ issues.

According to various sources, at this late date, US negotiators are opening up discussion points that Iran thought they’d already dealt with. These include access to Iranian military sites (which Iran has already rejected), some technical issues around the Fordo nuclear facility, research and development parameters, and the critical issue around the timeline established for staged sanctions relief.

Clearly, for the Iranians, one of the main objectives of these negotiations is the removal of all international sanctions related to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear file.

An official explains: “The sanctions-lifting is not a day’s job – we don’t expect this. The US needs to do some preparatory work to change the culture of sanctions. They have to inform the companies and financial institutions and remove the political and cultural bias/fear of doing business with Iran – the Americans refer to this as the ‘psychological effect of sanctions’ – and this needs at least six months of hard, hard work, including a lot of legal work.”

But the Iranians want the US to work in parallel and simultaneously on sanctions-removal alongside Iran as it undertakes its physical task of disassembling agreed-upon aspects of its nuclear program. Based on technical calculations from official sources, it will take Iran a maximum of three months to implement these steps.

The most significant setback at this stage of negotiations is in fact the insertion of the US Senate into the process. Post-Lausanne, the Senate passed a bill that demanded oversight over the Iran nuclear deal and so Congress gets approximately 52 days to fiddle with whatever gets approved in Vienna.

“It’s a massive setback,” says an Iranian official. “Even if there is an agreement on June 30, we have nothing until the Senate approves it. If Iran had passed a similar bill, do you think the media would be so silent about this development?”

“If we want to be fair, the sanctions removal process should start together, in parallel with Iran’s work, to establish trust. It’s doable within three months. Otherwise – what? We destroy the heart of the Arak (hard water) reactor and then the US changes its mind?” This is a sentiment heard from many Iranians interviewed.

What do the Americans say about this, I ask? “The US is saying we’re still thinking about this.”

The same lack of definition surrounds the much-hyped issue of access to Iran’s military facilities. In the past few months, Western media has highlighted this storyline ad nauseum – to the annoyance of the Iranians at the negotiating table today.

“We never accepted this military site access. Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent speech never established this as a ‘new’ red line – it was one of our biggest problems with the US fact sheet after Lausanne. The Americans created a problem for themselves by saying this repeatedly.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (C) laughs during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (not pictured) at a hotel in Vienna, Austria June 30, 2015. (Reuters / Carlos Barria)

Iran has agreed in principle on IAEA access based on the ‘Additional Protocol’ which leaves it up to the individual member-state to decide on whether to provide access to requested sites.

The protocol specifically states that “it is permissible not to allow” access – and that inspectors can only use this access for “local environmental sampling,” which the Iranians know full well can be done from outside a facility’s perimeters.

“Even the US demands ‘managed access’ of the IAEA when it does its US inspections,” says a source familiar with the nuclear organization’s procedures.

Says an Iranian close to negotiators: “This issue of ‘access’ is really more an issue that speaks to the integrity of the American position at the negotiating table.”

The thing about Vienna on D-Day is that it is packed to the rafters with journalists of every stripe, straining for the tiniest tidbit of information to get a reading on what is happening at that table.

They congregate until well past midnight in the hotel lobby where most of them stay…or inside the large white tent erected outside the Palais Coburg – site of the talks – next door.

Information is the currency of the media, and when the stakes are this high and on-the-record news is so scarce, every bit of information becomes “newsworthy” – never mind that much of it is purposefully flogged by various parties for gain inside the deal-making room.

It is driving the Iranians nuts. “At this stage we still have joint common interests otherwise we couldn’t sit at the table,” says one. “But the sense outside the negotiating room is that there is a crisis.”

And the media fuels it.

Just last night, for instance, an Iranian official shot down an Agence France Press (AFP) report on the Islamic Republic’s readiness to allow inspections of its military sites. He insists the article, which is based entirely on the claims of a ‘senior US official’, “deliberately distorted information to influence the negotiations.”

“We will never allow anyone to inspect military sites because they are not relevant to the IAEA inspections.” He added: “We have serious doubt about the intentions of those who are pushing for access to our defense installations.”

The Iranian government has, on two separate occasions in 2005, “voluntarily provided access” to the IAEA to inspect a single “suspected site” called Parchin. According to an official source, “we did it because we wanted to close – once and for all – the issue of the ‘potential military dimension’ (PMD), even though we know it’s a fabricated story and we knew the US knew it was fabricated.”

“These (the PMD) are not real issues. They are more a matter of the US trying to prove the credibility of past claims. It was wrong, they knew they were wrong, but they have a need to stick to the script…Kerry himself has said the PMD issue has been distorted ‘a little bit’ – to put it mildly.”

“We don’t care how much they want to be tough on the PMD,” says the source. “It is a security case that doesn’t have any end,” which is why Iran’s top leadership has drawn a firm ‘red line’ under matters that have no reasonable or logical relevance to the IAEA’s task at hand.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman meet Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (not pictured) at a hotel in Vienna, Austria June 30, 2015. (Reuters/ Carlos Barria)

Iran’s few red lines are there for good reason.

Prompted by the IAEA’s suspicions, in 2008, the Islamic Republic provided information on their EBW (Exploding Bridgewire) program to the nuclear agency. One of the authors of this study was Darioush Rezaeinejad, a postgraduate electrical engineering student. “The IAEA said this has dual-use applications,” says an Iranian familiar with the case. “Darioush was one of five Iranian scientists assassinated later, in front of his family – the knowledge that he had got him killed.”

“We are not afraid of our past so we are ready to do any kind of activity to clarify this for the whole world,” he explains. “But only within a process that would not lead to the death of our scientists.”

Iran today refuses to provide information or access to 18 scientists, academics and military personnel the US would like to interview. Western media cites this tidbit as though it is a sign of bad faith negotiating – like the Iranians have something to hide. But ask Iranian officials about this sticking point and you learn: “The list of 18 is specifically an American demand. It was a demand already rejected by Iran before the Lausanne framework agreement three months ago. It isn’t even on the table – the Americans haven’t brought up the issue again.”

There are times in Vienna when an agreement seems further away than ever. Everyone agrees that the seven countries at the table want this done, the US and Iran – for different reasons – at the forefront of the ‘hopefuls.’

But when you look at the nitty-gritty of what is being discussed and how far apart the sides are on simple things like ‘process’ and ‘positioning,’ it isn’t hard to wonder whether an Iran nuclear deal is even in the cards.

The press corps huddling over lattes in the lobby may be better-employed researching articles on “what if there is no Iran deal?” After all, as Iran’s Zarif said just a few days ago, “If there’s no deal, it’s not the end of the world.”

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.