WASHINGTON — Food boxes strewn across the floor. The espresso machine constantly buzzing in the background. Sleepless nights punctuated by long talk sessions in different rooms on different floors. Physicists occasionally catnapping, heads on table.
No, this wasn't a college cram session for a major exam. It was the scene at one of Switzerland's finest hotels as U.S. diplomats worked hour upon hour to reach a landmark nuclear deal with Iran this week.
For America's diplomats, the sessions included lots of room service and messy brainstorming sessions. And if the pressure wasn't enough, there was Secretary of State John Kerry popping into the room to pull individuals aside or tell them to accelerate their efforts, according to U.S. officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly about behind-the-scenes interactions and demanded anonymity.
Kerry, too, exhausted himself in sealing the framework deal that outlines how Iran would scale back its nuclear program and how the U.S. and its negotiating partners would roll back sanctions crippling the Iranian economy. Those steps are contingent on six nations and Iran following the framework up with a comprehensive accord by the end of June.
From the start of March through Thursday's breakthrough, Kerry spent 19 days in the Swiss cities of Geneva, Lausanne and Montreux negotiating with the Iranians. For much of that time, the Europeans, Chinese and Russians stayed away or sent lower-level officials. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spent more than 10 hours together in one-on-one sessions.
The last round of discussions began March 26 with the goal of wrapping up work within five days.
The U.S. would extend the talks by two days, regularly preparing the plane for departure so the Iranians wouldn't think the talks were open-ended. Journalists were told three times to drop off their bags, only to then be instructed to extend their hotel room bookings. Plane crews kept crashing against mandatory rest periods after 15 hours on standby.
Kerry tried to keep a clear head, taking to his bicycle during the limited down time he had. Of his three rides, two were interrupted when President Barack Obama called and demanded an update on the status of the negotiations. In those instances, Kerry had to rush back to Lausanne's 19th century Beau-Rivage Palace to dial into secure calls.
When talk of physics with the Iranians got too nitty-gritty, Kerry and Zarif sent their nation's top scientists out of the room to discuss the matter fully. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who studied at M.I.T. at the same time, would meet one-on-one and then report back on what they discussed.
And when the secretary of state needed calculations or tweaks, officials described him putting his team to work and sometimes popping in to let them know they needed to move more quickly.
Kerry took an unusually hands-on approach to the negotiations, they said. This included getting involved in details as granular as travel plans for the other foreign ministers and helping with scheduling conflicts. After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov left, Kerry persuaded him to come back.
The critical meeting with the Iranians lasted nine hours between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, finally ending at 6 a.m. Emotions at times ran high as sleep deprivation kicked in. Officials acknowledged that at several times Kerry "had it."
But he and other negotiators pressed on. Not everything went smoothly.
At 3 a.m. that evening, U.S. nuclear experts scribbled out some classified information on the whiteboard they were using to explore ideas. The only problem was that someone used a permanent marker by mistake.
It took 20 minutes to scrub the information off, officials said.