Aggressive lobbying from Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and U.S. lawmakers, the Iranian role in fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, and the Saudi Arabia-led military operation in Yemen — all are using up the oxygen around the Iran talks in Switzerland, complicating the efforts of U.S. officials to protect the fragile nuclear negotiations ahead of a Tuesday deadline.
“We’ve said that March 31 is a deadline; it has to mean something and the decisions don’t get easier after March 31,” Marie Harf, acting spokeswoman for the State Department, told reporters Monday afternoon. “I think it’s no secret that our Congress certainly is interested in acting, and we have obviously said we’re very opposed to that action,” she continued. “That puts sort of an additional pressure on our side.”
Harf put the odds of coming away with an acceptable political outline by the end of Tuesday at 50-50, at best. That’s despite some notes of optimism over the weekend from the negotiators, which include Secretary of State John Kerry, and leaders from Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. While Kerry and others are holed up in Lausanne, Switzerland, to make a final push, Obama administration officials have acknowledged those chances of success will drop precipitously after around 6 p.m. EDT, roughly midnight in Lausanne.
The final deadline for a deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is June 30, when the interim agreement in place since 2013 expires. Harf said the March marker was intended as an “action-forcing mechanism,” but she declined to answer whether the U.S. would walk away Tuesday if a preliminary framework weren’t reached. “We aren’t going to rush to accept a bad deal,” Harf said. “And so if we can’t get a good deal, we won’t take one, pure and simple.”
But far from it, recent briefings from White House officials have shown how the flare-up in a proxy war for influence in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia is complicating the nuclear negotiations and challenging U.S. efforts to keep the issues untangled.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday, “It shouldn’t [affect the talks], simply because we’ve been clear about the fact that the list of grievances that the United States has with Iran is lengthy.”
“Whether it’s Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region, their support for terror around the world and their unjust detention of Americans, we’ve got a long list of concerns with Iran’s behavior,” he said. “They long pre-dated the beginning of these diplomatic negotiations and so I would not characterize it as a significant increase in those tensions. Those tensions over those issues have been in place for quite some time, and they are serious. And they are certainly tensions that this administration takes seriously. In fact, they are part of what makes it so important that we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz confirmed Monday that Kerry has discussed Yemen and other issues with counterparts “on the sidelines of those talks,” though Harf said, “What’s happening in the rest of the region hasn’t impacted those talks,” or their timeline.
An outline of a deal has begun to emerge: Iran would agree to dismantle or limit the use of a number of its centrifuges and facilities, as well as give up or at least dilute its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, in order to limit its “breakout time” to at least a year, for up to 10 years. Iran would also submit to regular inspections, in exchange for the U.S. lifting sanctions. But disagreements remain on the stockpile, the pace of sanctions relief and how long the agreement would last, and even the form the outline would take — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said he doesn’t want a written agreement on Tuesday.
Inevitably, any potential agreement will be controversial — particularly in the U.S., where though nearly 60 percent of Americans support an agreement with Iran that would lift sanctions in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program, many Republican lawmakers have sought to derail the talks. More important than Tuesday’s deadline may be April 13, when lawmakers return to Washington from their spring recess, ending the White House’s temporary reprieve. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., will mark up a bipartisan bill on April 14 that would allow Congress to weigh in on a final deal and bar the administration from lifting sanctions while the deal is reviewed, and he says the legislation is close to having veto-proof support. Just before recess, the Senate also unanimously passed an amendment to the fiscal 2016 budget — though non-binding — that stated it would enact further sanctions if Iran was to renege on a deal.
“We have more people coming on,” Corker told Defense One just before Congress recessed. “It’s the patience factor — I think the people on the other side of the aisle know we’ve been very conciliatory, very accommodating, but no, we’re gonna have a markup when we get back.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, are both leading codels to Israel over the recess to add to the pressure and tie the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran to the recent deterioration in the region’s security.
Several of the Iranian-trained, equipped and led Shiite militias helping Iraqi Security Forces in their push to oust the Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Tikrit have withdrawn from the operation at the insistence of the U.S., which made it a condition for providing air support, according to the Pentagon. Military officials have acknowledged this may make it more difficult to take back the city. In Yemen, the U.S. is providing intelligence and logistical support to Saudi Arabia and a coalition of countries that have begun a military operation against Shiite Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, who have ousted the recognized government.
Netanyahu warned Sunday, “The most important thing is to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a path to the bomb and that Iran’s aggression in Yemen and elsewhere, including around Israel’s borders, is stopped.”
McConnell, appearing with Netanyahu, said, “The option, if there’s an agreement, is a bill that we intend to vote on that enjoys bipartisan support to require that agreement come to Congress for approval. If there’s no deal then the view of this group, similar to your own, is that ratcheting up sanctions might be the best direction.”
But these developments have also led some Republican leaders to encourage the administration to slow down.
“We call them Houthis, [but] this is Iran,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. said Sunday on CBS. “I think now is the time to push back from the table and ask ourselves, is it really time to trust the people that we’re negotiating with, the Iranians. I would encourage the administration, let’s take more time.”
Corker said Sunday he was concerned that negotiators are “rushing headlong into a deal.” He added, “Our nation and the world would be much better off if they would slow down or pause to ensure that if a deal is reached, it will be enforceable, hold Iran accountable, and be strong enough to stand the test of time. Especially with all of the turmoil in the region today, a bad deal is far worse than no deal.”
Add to that turmoil that one of Iran’s primary demands for the agreement — that it be granted more immediate and full sanctions relief — can only be granted with the help of Congress. According to reports, this context has forced the White House to consider a compromise that would allow lawmakers more of an oversight role. It still opposes any legislation that would result in new sanctions or give the body a final vote, or any action before June 30.
“We are very clear that Congress should not take action while we’re negotiating,” Harf said. “If we can get to a comprehensive agreement, then yes, Congress will have a role to play. For starters, they will have a role to play in eventually lifting the sanctions that they put in place that helped get Iran to the table. They are the only ones that can ultimately lift, terminate the U.S. sanctions that they put in place.”