While the Iran nuclear talks drag on in Vienna past the third missed deadline, spare a thought for the luxurious surroundings in which these talks are taking place.
The venue, where Iran’s chief negotiator Javad Zarif and sundry other negotiators have been bunking down during these talks, is the Palais Coburg, formerly a palace, now an ornate hotel, rich in beautifully restored old stonework, polished wood, plush furnishings, crystal chandeliers, golden bathroom fixtures, gourmet restaurants, and three tiers of magnificent front terraces. Here’s a view of the Palais, and here’s a rundown on the rooms and suites, which go for anywhere from about $660 to almost $3,000 per night. The Coburg Suite, at the high end of this scale, is a 1,299 square foot duplex, decorated in the Empire style, with kitchenette, terrace, jacuzzi, sauna, plump pillows and fresh flowers.
We are not told who is staying in which rooms. But we do know that Austria has been treating Iran’s envoy, Zarif, as an honored guest. When I inquired about the arrangements back in March, 2014 (early in the talks, when the deadline was supposed to be July 20, 2014), I was told that Tehran did not have to spring for a hotel bill in Vienna. Austria was paying for Zarif’s accommodations at the Palais.
OK, but so what? Why should anyone care? There’s a long tradition of diplomats enjoying all sorts of luxuries, especially when they are engaged in high affairs of state. It’s part of the symbolism, meant to dignify the emissaries and the nations they represent. No one expects an Iran nuclear deal to be signed at a roadside motel accessorized with cheap towels, plastic flowers and soda-vending machines.
But if we may step outside the habitual mindset for a moment, a roadside motel would be a much more appropriate setting for these talks. At the very least, it might restore a touch of reality to a scene in which Iran’s envoys have acquired an aura of jet-set celebrity, framed in one photo-op after another by the movie-star trappings of upmarket Western Europe.
Come to think of it, maybe they should be holding these nuclear talks in a meeting room at Iran’s Evin Prison — a setting rather more rife with information about the real character of Iran’s regime. Not least, Evin is the prison where Iran has been holding as de facto hostages American citizens Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian and Saeed Abedin — in quarters and on rations considerably less pleasant than Zarif’s accommodations at the Palais Coburg.
I’m not suggesting that Iran imprison Secretary of State John Kerry and throw lead negotiator Wendy Sherman into the cell next to him, while Zarif drops by to bargain over Tehran’s nuclear program. But a neutral room on the Evin grounds might well be instructive, for a great many of those concerned — and for a world watching these negotiations — in ways that the meeting chambers of Vienna are not.
It will never happen. But sometimes it’s worth imagining things that will never happen. It’s a scene that deserves to be transposed onto those photos in which Iran’s Zarif, honored guest at the Palais, focus of attention by six world powers, sits sanitized and smiling under the crystal chandeliers of Vienna.