A Le Monde reporter takes us behind the scenes of Geneva's marathon, high-stakes negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
GENEVA — In the lobby, the atmosphere had been electric for the last half-hour.
About 20 plain-clothes police officers equipped with earpieces, some wearing bulletproof vests, had pushed back the hundred or so journalists at both sides of the entrance. Some had been waiting there for 24 hours.
On the second floor, a charity ball for English-speaking expats was coming to an end after having raised more than 45,000 euros for four organizations helping children in need. Women in long dark leggings or transparent négligés were staggering across the hall on their high-heels to get to their cars. “I feel so ugly compared to them,” an Iranian journalist in a headscarf mumbled. She had not packed enough spare clothing for these endless Iran nuclear talks, which had started several days before, on Wednesday morning. A few minutes earlier, a completely drunk Scotsman had attempted to slip into the negotiation room before being discreetly evacuated by the police.
Journalists were surrounding French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius even before he reached the bottom of the staircase. “Mister Fabius, is there a deal?” an American shouted. Protected by a posse of advisors and guards, he didn’t say a word but gave a thumbs-up and nodded without stopping. It was enough to spark a flood of messages on Twitter.
There was a huge relief, maybe even a certain joy, among journalists from all over the world assembled in the five-star hotel’s lobby. Iranians and Israelis stood side by side, showing each other the messages they were sending. Some applauded. Only the Chinese were absent. They had left the hotel 20 minutes earlier, saying, to everyone’s surprise, that they had received instructions to get some sleep and that nothing would happen before dawn. From armchairs at the back of the room, a few journalists complained.
“This is crazy. They make us wait for five days in a hotel lobby and then leave without a word. What are we here for?" one English-speaking news agency correspondent growled.
In turn, every few minutes, the other delegations left the Intercontinental, in the same silence, for the Palace of Nations, where they would sign the official agreement between Iran and six world powers. A few minutes earlier, the Iranian press agency ISNA reported that it would be a four-page text.
Chocolate for Kerry
The day had, however, not started well. The negotiators, playing mute or cryptic, were happy just insisting that there were still many differences to satisfy. Unlike the previous session in Geneva, from Nov. 15-17, this time it was impossible to know who had met whom and on what level, bilateral or multilateral. It was also difficult to know whether the unexpected arrival of foreign affairs ministers in the middle of this diplomatic marathon, starting with Russian Sergei Lavrov, had accelerated the talks or not.
Hour after hour, the notion of an “imminent” agreement seemed very tenuous, maybe even reversible. Everyone was participating in the game of over-interpreting the smallest sign. When Secretary of State John Kerry slipped out in the afternoon to buy chocolate at Auer’s — known for its black truffles— rumor had it that an agreement had been reached. The enthusiasm was crushed a few hours later when Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi announced that the countries were still wrestling with the final 2% of the issues on the table.
It was Fabius’s thumbs up, just before 3 a.m., that made it clear that Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, would go down in the annals of history.