GENEVA Oct 16 If world powers were looking for
signs that Iran is serious about reaching a deal on its disputed
nuclear programme, the fact that its foreign minister took part
in negotiations in Geneva this week with debilitating back pain
was a clear one.
In one of the most striking images of two days of protracted
negotiations, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
entered a news conference on Wednesday in a wheelchair, after a
back and leg injury last week left him unable to stand or walk
without intense discomfort.
"I'm really in pain," Zarif told Reuters on Tuesday, as he
returned to his hotel from the first session of talks.
His predicament elicited empathy from those on the opposite
side of the negotiating table, in a sign of how relations
between diplomats have improved under new Iranian President
Hassan Rouhani, who has pledged to end Tehran's international
"There isn't one among us who doesn't have a back problem,"
a senior U.S. administration official said.
"Everyone had a back story for him, books they thought he
should read, things he might try, because we all have suffered."
Zarif, 53, told negotiators he had acupuncture to alleviate
the pain, the U.S. official added.
It was just one detail in two days of talks that indicated a
new tone in dealings between the two sides, although officials
cautioned that the gap in substance remained wide.
But such scenes would have been unimaginable just a few
years ago when U.S. and Iranian officials would go to great
lengths to avoid direct contact.
Iran and six world powers - the United States, Britain,
France, Russia, China, and Germany, known collectively as the
P5+1 - are engaged in negotiations to try to close a diplomatic
deal on Iran's nuclear program. The United States and its allies
suspect Iran is working towards a nuclear weapons capability,
and have imposed punishing economic sanctions to convince Iran
to curb the programme.
Iran insists its programme is purely peaceful, and Rouhani
and Zarif have sought better relations with the West in an
effort to win a lifting of the sanctions.
NO MORE LECTURES
Zarif injured his back last week, he wrote on his Facebook
page, after reading a report in a hardline Iranian newspaper
that he said had misquoted him about bilateral contacts between
Tehran and Washington.
Iranian media published a picture of Zarif meeting reporters
on the plane ride from Tehran to Geneva while lying on a couch,
covered with a blanket and with a laptop resting on his stomach.
Both sides said after this week's talks that they were
encouraged by the other's approach to the meeting in Geneva,
saying the level of detail discussed was unprecedented.
In another sign of Iran's readiness for substantive
progress, the talks were conducted in English for the first
time, cutting down on translation time and making for a smoother
discussion, Western officials said.
Saeed Jalili, the hardline war veteran who had led previous
rounds of negotiations, spoke at the talks and in news briefings
in Persian. Western officials complained that his statements
were long-winded lectures on Iran's grievances with the West.
"The pace of the discussions is much better and creates the
ability to really have the kind of back-and-forth one must have
if you want to have a negotiation," the U.S. official said.
Another Western official said: "As part of the new climate,
we could exchange in English ... This is more than a detail."
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing
by Giles Elgood)