In Geneva, U.S. and Iran Near the Finish Line

As three days of intensive negotiations came to a close here in Geneva, I was reminded of an old Winston Churchill quote that aptly describes the challenge facing America and Iran: "Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions." Churchill's political progeny would surely admit: the two sides have long showed a debilitating mastery of telling each other to go to hell. In a decades-old atmosphere of mistrust, simply getting to the negotiating table on a semi-regular basis has been a small victory. But a funny thing happened this past weekend at the InterContinental Hotel: Washington and Tehran finally asked for directions.

The corresponding change in style and substance was immediately discernible. Energy surrounding negotiations grew increasingly palpable as two scheduled days on the agenda bled into a third -- and then into the early morning hours of a fourth. "There's no reason why we can't get a deal done," a senior Iranian official told me as day one came to a close in Geneva. "It's long overdue. We have the will. Our friends seemingly do as well. These negotiations are different."

Of course, that's easy to say and much harder to demonstrate. But numerous Western diplomats corroborated his explanation: the U.S. and Iran, together with their British, French, German, Russian and Chinese counterparts, outlined a roadmap with common goals, concrete steps, and a clearly defined end game. Key issues that had never before been discussed were now on the table. Both sides insisted that it was a real negotiation -- and real progress was being made. As we waited for the marathon negotiations to conclude, we all knew that we were witnessing something historic: clear-eyed, edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting diplomacy. With the outcome in the balance, the parties worked well past midnight, into the early hours of the morning.

When the talks finally came to a close, the end result initially took the air out of the room: Lady Ashton, Foreign Minister Zarif, and Secretary Kerry took turns trying to explain why no deal had been reached. Differences remained, they said, but progress had been achieved. That was their way of saying diplomatically what EU diplomats told me privately: France was the sole country objecting to the deal. It holds a veto at the UN and EU, thereby making it critical to any future plan for sanctions relief that will inevitably have to be addressed in negotiations with Iran. Because it refused to sign on the dotted line, the seven countries agreed to maintain their diplomatic momentum at a third round of talks scheduled for November 20 in Geneva.

Nearly everyone in Geneva was stunned. Even the skeptics of diplomacy among us were surprised that a deal agreed to by Washington and Tehran was derailed in the eleventh hour by an intransigent Paris. Anger towards the French among the press corps was palpable. As day two bled into day three, it was clear to everyone that a deal was within reach, but obstacles remained. When it became clear that France -- and not Iran -- was the primary roadblock, journalists let loose on the Hollande government. A quick glance at their headlines and twitter feeds speaks volumes.

There was an air of disappointment as a long day came to a close. But rather than focus on why France opposed the deal, it's more important to put the Geneva talks in their proper context and emphasize the massive progress that was made. On Saturday, six foreign ministers negotiated from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Press conferences didn't finish until2:00AM. Diplomacy is working and it will resume ten days. Skeptics of diplomacy have nothing to hang their hats on. They have been proven wrong -- again.

One did not have to be in Geneva to see the obvious: more progress was made over the past three days than in the past three decades combined. The importance of this breakthrough must be contextualized: Compare negotiations under Iran's former chief nuclear negotiation Saeed Jalili to Foreign Minister Zarif's current stewardship. It's night and day, and the metric of success is now clear. The bedrock of these negotiations rests upon a simple but vital premise: It is in the interest of both sides to develop a peaceful solution to the U.S.-Iran conflict, and diplomacy is the only viable pathway that bridges status-quo mistrust to future cooperation.

To that end, both sides acknowledge -- and are working to contain -- the very real presence of spoilers who seek to maintain or exacerbate a negative trajectory in relations. "We're not in the business of doing favors," a Western diplomat told me, smiling. "We're in the business of pursuing our interests."However, no less important have been the forces for moderation that do not believe Washington and Tehran need one another as an enemy. As talks concluded, Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary both emphasized their belief that progress was made and a deal can be reached.

An important precedent was set in Geneva: the paradigm of the talks has shifted from perpetual escalation to concessions and incentives. Both sides have moderated their positions, moved a bit closer to the center, and made the political investments necessary to give this process a real chance to succeed.

The contrast with the past four years couldn't be clearer. Until recently, the status quo represented a scenario in which no solution to the conflict was found, but escalation increased rather than paused or decreased. Negotiations in Geneva have proven the inverse is also true: when escalation is paused or decreased, peaceful solutions to conflict become more achievable.

This critical shift highlights the fact that the tools of statecraft are simple: war or diplomacy. As I've said before, anything else -- whether it is called sanctions, containment, dual track or regime change -- is simply a tactic that delays the inevitable choice between these two options. The inconvenient truth of statecraft is that most conflicts -- even war -- end via negotiations; and everything before negotiations -- including war -- is for leverage. Efforts to delay the inevitable choice between war and diplomacy have only added pressure to escalate to the worst possible outcome.

An institutionalized enmity that has taken over three decades to build will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. But there is reason for optimism: gone are the days of shortsighted tactical maneuvers aimed at appeasing domestic political constituencies. Rather than playing not to lose, the U.S. and Iran have started crafting a strategy for winning the peace.

These negotiations will continue to be hard, but the taboo of building confidence through dialogue has been broken -- and that is diplomacy's great promise: one can never predict where discussions will lead once they have started. Diplomacy is a more deliberate -- and often times, more frustrating -- path to resolving conflict. But neither Washington nor Tehran can get very far without it. As they continue to build confidence through the next meeting in Geneva on November 20, they would be wise to remember this inconvenient truth -- and consider the catastrophic alternative.