Obama Gains Leeway to Extend Iran Talks If Deadline’s Missed

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John Kirby
U.S. State Department official John Kirby speaks during a press briefing in Washington, on June 16, 2015. Photographer: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has growing political leeway to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations if there’s no deal by the June 30 deadline set seven months ago.

An extension of the talks by days -- or longer -- seems increasingly likely as Iran and most of the other world powers involved in the negotiations have signaled doubt about being able to resolve all the issues in the next week.

A former Obama administration adviser, an architect of American sanctions against Iran and an influential U.S. lawmaker all have said the deadline matters less than the outcome, and the State Department’s spokesman said as much on Tuesday.

“Getting the right deal is better than the deadline itself,” John Kirby told reporters, even though Kirby and other U.S. officials continue to stress the objective of wrapping up an accord by June 30 or a few days thereafter.

The obstacle for Obama had been the prospect that the U.S. Congress, where anti-Iran sentiment is strong, would react quickly to another missed deadline by imposing further economic sanctions on Iran. The administration successfully fought additional sanctions last year by warning lawmakers that such action would blow up the talks rather than increasing pressure on Iran to compromise.

Shifting Mood

Now the mood in Washington has shifted, particularly as critics and others say they worry that Obama -- more than the Iranians -- will feel pressured to make concessions to meet the deadline.

Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser on Iran, said Congress would allow more time if that’s what’s necessary to see if the parties can reach an acceptable deal.

“It’s important not to be driven by a deadline,” Ross said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s important to be driven by the content.”

An advocate for sanctions who helped lawmakers devise existing restrictions, Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said much the same thing, though faulting the administration for the concessions it’s already made in reaching the framework for a deal in April in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“The Obama administration has proven itself unable to convert the threat of new congressional sanctions into enhanced leverage and better negotiating positions,” Dubowitz said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “Maybe, with more time and under no deadline pressure, the administration might finally hold the line on the few remaining issues where it hasn’t yet caved.”

Corker’s View

A key voice on the issue in Congress, Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he doesn’t see pressure now from Congress on the deadline.

“I don’t think there’s any effort right now at all to add sanctions,” Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said in a June 17 interview, in advocating for more negotiating time.

“I hope they don’t meet the June 30 deadline,” he said. “I’d rather them keep talking and getting it to the right place.”

Iran is negotiating with six world powers -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts are due to gather in Vienna at the end of the week for efforts to complete a deal and its complicated technical annexes.

Joining in the consensus that June 30 isn’t an urgent deadline, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that ending the talks “in due time should be secondary in comparison to resolving the problem itself,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

July 4 Break

One scenario is that the talks run a few days beyond the deadline, as happened at the end of March. Another is that the negotiators take a break for the July 4 holiday in the U.S. and then resume the talks for an agreed period of time.

A nuclear accord “is within reach” provided the six countries with which Iran is negotiating make no “excessive demands,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said June 13 at a press conference in Tehran. He said the talks could “take longer” than the June 30 deadline.

“That’s their way of saying ‘we’re relaxed about it,’ and I think that should be our posture, as well,” said Ross, a veteran Mideast negotiator who’s counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Iranians “have a style of holding out until the last possible minute and using the deadline as a form of pressure,” Ross said. “And I think it’s important for them to understand that what the administration has established as its essential needs is what it’s going to focus on, not on whether we can reach that agreement by June 30.”

‘We’ll See’

U.S. officials describe the sense of a deadline as useful to force decisions, even if in the end the talks have to be extended again.

“Deadlines are a good thing because they do help drive outcomes,” Kirby said Monday. “And I just think that it would be counterproductive for me to speculate” about extending the talks past June 30.

Negotiators will do their work, “and we’ll see where we are in a week,” Kirby said.

Anticipating the possible endgame in Vienna, advocates and critics of a potential deal are gearing up to influence Congress, which has authority to review any deal before Obama waives U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Congress is unlikely to back any deal that lifts sanctions before verification that Iran has fulfilled its commitments under a deal, a position also held by the U.S. and other world powers. In the latest maneuvering, though, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that lifting economic sanctions shouldn’t be delayed pending verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Lobbying Schumer

In the U.S., a group called Secure America Now is pressing a digital campaign against a deal -- including the website stopthebadirandeal.com -- directed at key lawmakers, such as New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. The group says its advisory board includes former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, now a Republican presidential candidate, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Fox News contributor Patrick Caddell.

Schumer, who usually takes a hard line against Iran, told representatives from the Orthodox Union on June 3 that he’s undecided about whether to oppose the emerging deal with Iran, according to a report by the Forward, which covers Jewish affairs.

Other anti-deal groups, such as the Israel Project, the Foreign Policy Initiative and United Against Nuclear Iran, also have been increasing their activities heading toward the June 30 deadline.

‘Powerful Forces’

On the other side, the pro-Israel J Street group, countering the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said it’s beginning a multimillion-dollar initiative “to solidify congressional support for a deal that would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

“Powerful forces have lined up in opposition to the deal, misrepresenting the negotiations ahead of a congressional vote,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in announcing the initiative.

While the prospect of the deal with Iran has drawn strong opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a number of pro-Israel U.S. groups, J Street said its polling found that many American Jews would support an accord that lifts Iran sanctions in return for major constraints on Iranian nuclear activities.

“A striking 78 percent of American Jews would back an agreement that imposes intrusive inspections of Iran and caps its enrichment of uranium at a level far below what is necessary to make a nuclear weapon in exchange for phased relief from US and international sanctions,” J Street said June 10 in comments on results of a GBA Strategies poll it commissioned.

The poll, conducted May 31-June 1 by Mountain West Research Center, covered 1,000 self-identified Jewish adults, and is subject to a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

(A previous version of this story corrected the name of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)

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