In the unlikely setting of a bucolic French chateau complete with a pack of fox-hounds, former officials from Iran, Israel, China and the US have got together for a weekend of banquet-fuelled and ground-breaking discussions over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The unusual talks, perhaps a first in the grey realm of “track two” or parallel diplomacy, sought to overcome the mistrust of hardliners on the many sides of the Middle East’s divides ahead of the resumption on Thursday of official negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the P-5+1, meaning the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany.
Jean-Christophe von Pfetten, a French businessman and “baron” with close ties to China, hosted last weekend’s meeting at his Selore chateau in the heart of Burgundy country.
Mr von Pfetten is known as the “red baron” in China for his avid support of the ruling Communist party but perhaps also for the colour of his hunting coat when he rides with his hounds. Speaking to the FT, he stressed the importance of Beijing’s “more pro-active involvement” in the Middle East and the willingness of China and the US to work hand-in-hand in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.
The significance of the encounter is hard to judge. Mr von Pfetten, 46, said the participation of Israel’s Doron Avital, former military officer and former member of the Israeli parliament, had been backed by the country’s defence ministry and that it was the first time that an Israeli administration had allowed such a figure to meet with an Iranian general of the Revolutionary Guards.
Contacted by the FT, Mr Avital declined to comment on the role of the Israeli government behind the scenes or in what he described as a “private academic gathering”. He said they discussed China’s role in the Middle East and whether Iran was “taking a strategic change or not”.
“I was particularly impressed in the gradual warming up between Doron and the Iranian general,” Mr von Pfetten insisted. But he declined to name the Iranian and it was not clear whether he was retired or serving.
Mr von Pfetten, who claims a saint among his ancestors and says his grandfather employed China’s late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping during a brief stint in France in 1921, organised a similar encounter of Chinese military officials and senior members of the Vatican two years ago in an attempt to heal the decades-long diplomatic rift.
The latest talks were also attended by Huang Baifu, a retired general and vice chairman of the Chinese Institute for International and Strategic Studies; Howard Gutman, a former US ambassador to Belgium and Democratic party fund-raiser; Michele Alliot-Marie, a former French foreign and defence minister; and former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke.
Mr von Pfetten said the parties had reached an “agreeable solution” on how to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities and allay fears that Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon. “The proposal came from the Iranian delegate, modified by the Chinese and finally agreed by the Israeli and US delegates,” he said.
Details would be kept confidential but Mr Hawke was to present the proposal to John Kerry, US secretary of state, he added.
However an aide to Mr Hawke, who described the chateau talks as “interesting” and a “work in progress”, said that it was not certain that the outcome would be presented to Mr Kerry.
In October Geneva hosted the first detailed discussions with officials from the new Iranian government since the election in June of centrist president Hassan Rouhani. The talks appeared to end on a positive note with a US official saying there “could possibly be an agreement” with Tehran over its nuclear programme. A second round is due to start on Thursday.
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