Neutrality and excitement make for uncommon bedfellows. The global centres of diplomacy do not tend to be places where you would want to spend a great deal of time.
Vienna, though, with its cafés, its culture and its size, is a possible exception. At the very least, it has two things going for it: it is not Geneva. And it is certainly not Lausanne, that other Swiss negotiating hub. This year, Austria’s capital beat both to put itself again at the centre of the diplomatic world map.
On July 14, six world powers — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, alongside Germany — signed a nuclear accord with Iran, bringing to a close the Islamic Republic’s long economic isolation in return for an end to its aggressive atomic ambitions.
For Austria, hosting the agreement has been something of a coup. The country’s foreign ministry went all out to secure the talks, in an effort to cement Vienna’s place as Europe’s principal diplomatic venue.
The city certainly has its diplomatic pedigree: there have been at least a dozen great treaties of Vienna, the most famous of which — in 1815 — laid the foundations of modern Europe for the next 99 years, until the calamity of 1914.
More recently, and more relevantly, the Vienna Convention of 1961 became the bedrock of modern international diplomacy. And, of particular relevance to the nuclear talks with Iran, of course, Vienna is the home of the International Atomic Energy Agency — the independent UN body that oversees the world’s nuclear powers.
All of which is not to say there was no resistance to the talks — which occurred in a series of sessions over 18 months — unfolding in the city. Vienna is still the espionage capital of Europe, thanks to its lax laws on spying. Diplomats negotiating the nuclear rapprochement often found themselves shuttling back to secure facilities at their embassies to discuss and consult on the most sensitive of matters.
The Iranians had also been keen to conclude the discussions in Switzerland, rather than Austria, for reasons of spin. Clinching a historic agreement on the shores of the lake, with a photo call in front of the Palais des Nations — the golden armillary sphere glinting in the background — would have been a PR coup for Tehran, which has been eager to cast itself as a peaceable victim, rather than a nuclear aggressor. Western diplomats wanted a location that was a little more workaday.
Over the months of difficult, meandering negotiations, the talks did indeed stray from the Danube on occasion, both to Geneva and Lausanne and — in a brief departure from an alpine theme — to Oman.
With discussions frequently busting through deadlines, dragging on for days and sometimes weeks, for most diplomats, journalists and officials, Vienna was, at least on a personal level, the preferred location in which to be stranded.
At the start, in early 2014, journalists found themselves holed up in the bland expanses of the Danube City — a soulless agglomeration of towers and tech parks in the middle of a river, 4km or so from Vienna’s elegant centre. The penny soon dropped, however, that the actual talks were taking place not in nearby UN facilities but in the Palais Coburg on the central Ringstrasse. Eventually, authorities were forced to relocate press facilities to the doorstep of the Coburg, known locally as the Spargelburg — Asparagus palace, thanks to the slender colonnade on its delicate façade.
That, at least, put the press corps and diplomats in striking distance of Vienna’s attractions in the frequent downtime, when not even free Mozartkugeln — the slightly synthetic-tasting chocolate covered marzipan-balls that pass as a national sweet — could keep people in the cramped press tent hastily erected on a ringstrasse side-street.
Journalists collected cafés and their specialist torte — Sacher for beginners, Esterhazy and Malakov for the advanced — as conversation pieces.
A particular highlight came when Austria’s youthful foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, invited bored reporters for Sunday brunch at his ministry.
The Stadtpark, in the summer heat was meanwhile a welcome sunbathing spot for some diplomats in breaks between deadlocked negotiations.