White House Shrugs as Iran Nuclear Talks Move Into Overtime

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the state of talks with Iran over the country's nuclear program. Kerry speaks at a news conference in Vienna. (Source: Bloomberg)

U.S. officials brushed aside the latest delay in negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which sets another clock ticking for the Obama administration.

The failure of Iran and world powers to seal a deal in Vienna on Thursday means Congress will get 60 days rather than 30 to review -- and potentially reject -- any agreement sent to lawmakers before Sept. 8. It also gives President Barack Obama’s domestic opponents more time to try to upend the negotiations.

Administration officials said taking more time won’t make a difference.

“We’re not too concerned about the 30-to-60 day window,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday. “It would not have a substantive impact on a final agreement that could be reached.”

In announcing that negotiators from the U.S. and five other world powers would extend talks with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry said the diplomats have made considerable progress. The deadline for the negotiations, originally June 30, has been extended multiple times to try to resolve differences over issues including sanctions and Iran’s call for the lifting of a United Nations arms embargo.

“We shouldn’t get up and leave simply because the clock strikes midnight,” Kerry told reporters in Vienna on Thursday. At the same time, though, he said Obama “made it very clear to me last night we can’t wait forever for the decisions to be made.”

Rallying Support

Earnest said that while opponents of the deal could take advantage of the extra time to build opposition in Congress, the White House would use it to corral support. Lawmakers added the time to the review legislation to accommodate their August recess.

“We will be confident in making the case to the American public and to the world that this agreement would effectively prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Earnest said.

Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security and a former Defense Department adviser on Iran, said the negotiators probably will either get a deal in the next few days or leave Vienna for a break in the talks.

Missing the July 9 deadline for a 30-day congressional review, set out in the legislation Obama signed in May, may work to the benefit of the U.S., Goldenberg said.

“I think the Iranians saw July 9 and saw it as meaning the United States was going to be under pressure to come to a deal by July 9 because it doesn’t want the 60-day review,” he said. “The administration needed to dissuade the Iranians of the notion that was true.”

No Rush

Even members of Congress who have been skeptical of negotiating with Iran urged the Obama administration not to rush into a deal based on a deadline that would limit their review time.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said the administration should consider walking away from the negotiating table.

“If they feel like they’re not making progress, that is the best thing for them to do, to step away,” the Tennessee Republican said. “But I’m not at the table, so I can’t get a sense of whether that’s where they are or not.”

Corker said the Iranian negotiators have “handled themselves masterfully” by moving negotiations to “managed proliferation” for its nuclear program from demands that it be dismantled.

Corker said he’d begun talks with other senators and with House counterparts so that lawmakers can be ready to begin their review whenever a deal is announced.

“We are trying to work through all the machinations, not knowing exactly when it comes,” he said. “Obviously we don’t want to be flat-footed.”

Arms Embargo

Corker and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a frequent critic of the administration, said they were concerned that the existing United Nations embargo on arms sales to Iran has become part of the discussions in Vienna.

Iran and Russia, which would benefit from Iran’s ability to buy weapons, have insisted in the talks that the embargo be lifted under a deal. The U.S. has dismissed a wholesale lifting, while indicating some flexibility on the nature and duration of the embargo.

The Obama administration is “desperate for an agreement and the Iranians are demanding more and more, which is the way these things proceed when one side knows the other side is desperate,” McCain said.

While the delay is giving critics a chance to attack the yet-unfinished deal, opinion surveys have indicated broad public support for the negotiations.

A poll conducted May 25 to June 17 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 59 percent of Americans support the general terms of an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. There’s also majority support for the U.S. taking military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon if negotiations fail or the Islamic Republic violates a deal.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.