Anyone who says it’s all work and no play for the hordes of diplomats, officials, security agents, analysts and reporters who have descended on Vienna for what should be the finale of almost two years of Iran nuclear talks is dead wrong. As the manager of a local brothel said, when the Iran talks are in town, “business is booming”.
He declined to say who were his most frequent customers, but made clear that, as far as he was concerned, the longer the negotiations between Iran and six world powers drag on, the better.
Some journalists are also pleased that this round of talks is in Vienna; when the last ministerial round, in March, was held in Lausanne, in notoriously expensive Switzerland, an Iranian reporter complained that he was having trouble affording short-term companionship.
Brothels are legal in Austria – so much so that last month an Austrian night club announced it was offering customers free sex in a summer-long protest over what its owner described as punitive tax rates.
TOO MUCH ‘THIRD MAN’?
Vienna’s Palais Coburg hotel, a 19th-century palace, has hosted most rounds of the talks since February 2014, and for all that time rumours have circulated about a network of underground tunnels connecting it to brothels and other establishments.
One Western diplomat said they could be just Iran-talks folklore inspired by Carol Reed’s classic 1949 film noir “The Third Man”, which features a chase scene through Vienna’s sewer system.
Some negotiators opt for a different kind of leisure activity anyway. One took a day off from haggling over uranium centrifuges and the legal technicalities of U.N. inspections to cycle 70 km along the Danube River – seemingly undeterred by the bicycle crash that put U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on crutches in May, the day after a nuclear meeting with Iran’s foreign minister in Geneva.
Other diplomats shed their business attire and enjoyed a splash in the public pools.
But their impatience is clear. “These talks have become obsessional,” said one. “I’d quite like to do something else now. It’s enough to make you go crazy.”
Like the food, for instance. Luxury hotel or not, after 10 days of the same lunch buffet, its starts to get repetitive; the Iranian delegation has taken to bringing in main courses from a local Persian restaurant.
ACHTUNG! ICE CREAM
The talks were supposed to finish by June 30 but, days before the deadline, one delegation were already joking in a beer garden in Vienna’s “Stadtpark” about “Groundhog Day”, the 1993 film about a man who relives the same day over and over again. Sure enough, the talks were extended by another week.
With energy needing to be saved for the long haul, the closest local DIY and garden store rapidly sold out of folding picnic chairs, which have become essential equipment for reporters staking out the talks.
As daytime temperatures have soared towards 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), keeping cool can be difficult.
Many television crews and photographers and a few correspondents are decked out in shorts and t-shirts and, in an attempt to cool the tempers of grumpy reporters, has Austrian Foreign Ministry has been supplying free ice cream.
At least once a day, a ministry employee wheels a cart full of lollies and cones into the media tent, calling out “Achtung, attention please!” to get the journalists with their laptops to clear a space – before the predictable scrum empties the cart of all but a few unpopular varieties.
“YOU’RE AN IDIOT!”
But that’s still not enough to get some of the reporters through their day.
“I’ve run out of words,” said a French-language reporter. “I used my last ounce of strength to do a story this morning. How many different ways can you say ‘inched towards a deal’?”
For an Italian journalist in the tent, where temperatures soared above 40 Celsius after the air conditioning broke down, it was all too much.
“You’re an idiot!” he screamed down the phone to his editor, “A moron! A moron! A moron!” And then he hung up.
One local reporter suggested to his foreign minister that keeping foreign correspondents cooped up in a stifling tent might be encouraging them to send home the wrong message about Austrian hospitality.
The minister, fresh-faced 28-year-old Sebastian Kurz, took the warning to heart and invited foreign reporters to Sunday brunch at his ministry, rather improbably making peace among nations in the process.
Iranian reporters came along – even though some of them were unable to enjoy the Viennese pastries because they were fasting for the holy month of Ramadan – and quickly found themselves rubbing shoulders with Israeli journalists, abandoning their usual reciprocal frostiness in the rush to get a “selfie” with the minister.
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