Once unheard of, US-Iran talks become the new normal

VIENNA (AP) — The top American and Iranian diplomats faced each other across a square table in a 19th century Viennese palace, the room austerely decorated and the atmosphere calm as they started the final push for a generation-defining nuclear agreement on Saturday.

Running up against a Tuesday deadline for a deal, their declarations of optimism and pledges of diligence sounded routine.

After two years of high-pressure gatherings, a sense of predictability has emerged in the negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Neither is letting the pressure show even as they and other global powers are at the cusp of an agreement that could redefine security in the Middle East and beyond for decades to come.

Just a short while ago, a snapshot alone of these two enemies engaged in discussions on nuclear and other matters would have been a bombshell felt in capitals around the world. Now, whether or not the U.S. and its negotiating powers can clinch a pact in Austria’s capital over the next several days, it’s hard to imagine the tentative U.S.-Iranian rapprochement ending anytime soon.

It’s become the new normal.

The U.S. and Iran are locked in ideological conflict and regional wars, from Syria’s seemingly intractable cycle of violence and instability in Lebanon and Yemen to Iran’s support for enemies of Israel. But the U.S. and Iran also have found common cause: aiding Iraq’s government and Kurdish militia against the Islamic State group, and committing, at least publicly, to an accord that would remove the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran while ending the Islamic Republic’s international isolation.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’re hopeful,” Kerry said as talks began at Vienna’s Palais Coburg. “We’ve a lot of hard work to do. There are some very tough issues and I think we all look forward to getting down to the final efforts here to see whether or not a deal is possible. I think everybody would like to see an agreement. But we have to work through some difficult issues.”

Zarif said he agreed. “We need to work really hard in order to be able to make progress and move forward. We are determined to do everything we can to be able to make this effort possible. Of course, that depends on a lot of things and we’re going to work on it.”

For a relationship that was frozen after the 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, the long hours spent in nuclear negotiations clearly have helped each side build a grudging understanding of one another. Although neither will use the word trust, for the first time in decades, U.S.-Iranian ties have in some ways “normalized.”

The official goal of the nuclear talks is an exchange of decade-long curbs on Iran’s nuclear program for tens of billions of dollars in relief from international economic sanctions. Participants say the talks could well drag on past Tuesday’s deadline.

Iran says its activity is solely designed for energy, medical and research purposes; much of the world fears it harbors nuclear weapons ambitions.

The U.S.-Iranian engagement started a couple of years ago in much more tentative fashion, with lower-level negotiators meeting in secret in the Gulf kingdom of Oman and elsewhere amid mutual suspicion.

The discussions gained steam after Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s president behind promises to take his country on a more moderate course and end its isolation. But the outreach in each direction grew slowly, and both sides closely guarded preparations for a historic telephone call in September 2013 between Rouhani and President Barack Obama. Two months later, world powers and Iran reached the first of two interim nuclear agreements.

Since then, the interactions between Kerry and Zarif, and the two countries’ other negotiators, have expanded dramatically. They regularly chat in hotel breakfast halls before their daily discussions, hold regular calls and coordinate schedules.

Beyond nuclear matters, the top officials have included in their discussions matters related to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other regional hot spots. The status of Americans detained or missing in Iran is another frequent topic of conversation.

At their previous meeting in May, Kerry and Zarif even bantered in front of reporters about democratic progress in Nigeria, another country engulfed by insurgency but one far removed from the battlegrounds of the Middle East.

Kerry, having just arrived in Geneva from the African nation, called the inauguration of a popularly elected president in Nigeria “very good historically for democracy.” Zarif, whose government is routinely criticized by other countries and human rights groups for its democracy failings, offered his verdict: “They have serious difficulties.”

But the limited snippets of public conversation often have been more personal in nature.

In March, Kerry began a meeting by offering condolences to Rouhani after his mother died and wished the Iranians a happy Persian New Year with the traditional declaration of “Nowruz Mubarak.” Later, he approached Rouhani’s brother, a member of the Iranian negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland, and hugged him.

On some occasions, the perceived coziness that has emerged has had repercussions for the Iranians.

When Zarif was photographed walking across a Geneva bridge with Kerry, hard-liners accused him of catering to the enemy. Shortly afterward, stories appeared in Iran’s press with anonymous officials talking about Zarif losing his temper with Kerry in private meetings, as if to make amends.

They also have spoken about bike riding – a regular pursuit of Kerry’s during the nuclear talks until a crash last month in France that broke his leg. Zarif, who was then dealing with a recurring back issue, called Kerry to commiserate.

And the good will has spread to others in the negotiating team.

For example, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iran’s atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi, both MIT-trained physicists, have struck up their own understanding and, by all accounts, a well-functioning relationship. Salehi isn’t in Vienna because of illness.

U.S. allies also aren’t entirely pleased as the warming to Iran has coincided with a fraying of some of America’s long-standing partnerships in the region. Washington clearly remains light years closer to Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, but their coolness or outright hostility to the Iran talks has taken a toll. For the Obama administration, it has created the strange dynamic of sometimes finding it easier to discuss nuclear matters with Tehran.

Great tension remains between the U.S. and Iran.

Only last week, many Iranian parliamentarians chanted “Death to America” as they passed legislation that would bar nuclear inspectors from visiting military sites – a key U.S. and international demand.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has delivered a series of speeches sharply denouncing U.S. intentions and tactics in the nuclear talks and on broader geopolitical matters.

In recent days, the State Department has issued reports that included condemnations of Iran for its “undiminished” support of terrorist groups and for human rights violations at home, including hanging people without due process and systematic repression.