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What Happened in Geneva? What Does It Mean?

It's not easy to make a deal with Iran (and even when you think you've made one, you might be wrong).  The failure of the Geneva talks is just another in a long series of such failures.  Even the public events are part of the well-established pattern:  the secretary of state jumps on a plane and flies to meet with the Iranians.  But when he gets there, he finds it's not quite a done deal.  And in the wee hours of the morning two days later, there's no deal at all.

Remember that something very similar happened in September 2006, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice jumped on a plane in Washington and flew to New York, expecting to sign a deal at the United Nations with Iran's Ali Larijani.  The deal had been negotiated in secret over several months, and both sides had agreed to the final language.  But Larijani never showed up.  This time the deal had again been negotiated in secret over several months, and, unlike 2006, the Iranians actually showed up, smiling broadly and brandishing their signing pens.  But it turned out that there was no deal.  What went wrong?

The headlines suggested that the French were to blame, that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius rejected some of the conditions, and his demands were unacceptable, at a minimum to the Iranians and perhaps to some of the Western countries as well.  The French insist that this latter claim is false.  They say that Kerry and Fabius met head-to-head on Saturday evening around six o'clock, and agreed on the Western final proposal.  They go on to say that, on the basis of the Franco-American agreement, Catherine Ashton of the EU wrote a 3-page text that all members of the Western group agreed to and that was given to the Iranians.  After some delay, the Iranians said that the text would have to be approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and they were unable to sign anything on the spot in Geneva.

No doubt we're going to get more detail in the next few days, but if the French account--which was given to the Socialist magazine Le Nouvel Observateur--is anywhere near correct, then there's an obvious series of questions:

--First, when the Obama administration whispered to the press that the deal was done, and that Kerry was showing up for the signing party in Geneva, what, if any, were the differences between that deal and the one the Iranians couldn't sign then and there?

--Second, was the Obama administration totally unaware of the French position?  How could Fabius's proposal have come as a surprise?  It's not as if we are isolated from French diplomats, after all;

--Third, were the Iranians unaware of the French position?  Or did they think that the Obama administration was going to force an agreement that did not satisfy Paris?

Here and there, I've read claims that the Americans backtracked during the negotiations in Geneva.  If true, it would help explain the snafu.  And if the French account is correct, it would mean that the United States backtracked twice, first to the Iranian demands, and then to French conditions.  When the Iranians saw that their own proposed deal was not accepted, they had to say that Khamenei would have to decide the matter.