A ten-day delay in talks aimed at negotiating an interim halt to Iran’s nuclear program could allow opponents of such a deal to build momentum on Capitol Hill, analysts said Monday.
For a time last week, it seemed like the Obama administration was eager to complete such a pact in little more than 48 hours from the time officials disclosed that a serious short-term agreement was on the table. That would have allowed the administration to bring such a package to Congress as a done deal, with lawmakers in the position of having to upend an agreement that had the blessing of at least six major world powers.
However, a late snag in the talks — there was still some dispute Monday about who was responsible for the hitch — led the parties to recess, with plans to reconvene Nov. 20. And that delay is essentially forcing the administration into a more public and high-profile defense of more diplomacy with Iran, and the Senate to hold off on a vote on new sanctions against Tehran.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Monday to encourage the Senate to avoid any moves that might scuttle the next round of talks, said a source familiar with the conversation, first reported by BuzzFeed.
And Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to brief members of the Senate Banking Committee at a closed-door session later this week, a congressional source said. Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters returning from the Mideast with the secretary that the briefing will take place Wednesday, Reuters reported.
As top Obama administration officials urged the Senate to hold off any new sanctions action, some supporters of a deal with Iran fretted that the administration had waited until now to make a strong push in Congress and with the public for a pact aimed at halting Tehran’s nuclear program.
“I understand the attractiveness of that strategy, but am still doubtful about the wisdom and effectiveness of it, because it essentially means the president wanted to present Congress with a fait accompli, and this Congress doesn’t react very well to that,” said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.
Parsi said it was clear that the U.S. administration and others wanted to get an interim deal signed before the debate heated up in Congress again on sanctions.
“Part of the reason why the talks continued until 2 a.m. in the morning on what was in reality the fourth day when they were supposed to be two days is precisely because of the awareness on all sides, except for the French, that if they don’t get something now, it’s going to be more difficult,” Parsi said. “Before now, [a deal] had the momentum. That doesn’t mean it’s completely dead.”
Longtime arms control advocate Joe Cirincione said the delay leaves the administration with a more uphill battle, but not an impossible one.
“It puts the administration a little more on the defensive,” said Cirincione, now with the Ploughshares Fund. “All negotiators would prefer to make the deal in private, whether it’s labor-management or two countries or, in this case, seven countries…They’re now in awkward position of having to go over the individual parts of this deal and have it all second-guessed.”
Meanwhile, groups who have been vocal about the Iranian nuclear threat are clearly delighted with the additional time to urge Congress to get more involved, even as administration officials are warning senators not to upset the delicate negotiations.
“The result of Geneva is that Congress will now have an opportunity, which it must take, to speak up on what it views as the essential principles of an Iranian nuclear agreement,” said United Against Nuclear Iran’s Mark Wallace, a former U.S. representative at the U.N. under President George W. Bush.
“Senators will be demanding much more detail about the agreement than would have been the case had the administration snuck it across the goal line last week,” Josh Block of the Israel Project said. “Are they going to legitimize the Iranian right to enrich in this deal? That would be an unacceptable outcome.”
Capitol Hill will begin to turn the heat up on the issue no later than Wednesday morning, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing assessing the Iranian talks and the proposal for an interim deal. No Obama administration official is on the witness list, but Obama campaign adviser and former Pentagon official Colin Kahl is set to appear.
A source close to the White House said there was no doubt that the administration’s task fending off congressional action would be more difficult with the talks in limbo than if a deal has been reached.
The timeline of last week’s events led some critics of the deal to charge that the administration was trying to steamroll through to an interim pact before Congress and interested members of the public had an opportunity to weigh in.
A top U.S. official briefed reporters Wednesday night, generating a round of headlines about a possible six-month agreement. By Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had rather predictably lashed out against such a deal. Some expected a deal by Friday night, but the talks bogged down — reportedly after France moved to toughen provisions to a reactor that could produce plutonium.
A kind of overtime session, which stretched past midnight Saturday, also failed to secure the six-month deal Obama discussed briefly in a television interview last week.
Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi Monday, Kerry downplayed the notion that France had scuttled the deal.
“The P5+1 was unified on Saturday when we presented our proposal to the Iranians. The French signed off on it, we signed off on it,” Kerry said. “There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it.”
In an interview with the BBC Monday, Kerry acknowledged that France had some views that differed from other members of the so-called P5+1, but he suggested those views were not critical to the scenario that played out in Geneva.
“The French have been more vocal about one thing or another, [but] we had a unity on Saturday in a proposal put in front of the Iranians,” the secretary of state said.
However, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter Monday to scoff at Kerry’s claim that Iran’s intransigence blocked a deal.
“No amount of spinning can change what happened w/in 5+1 in Geneva fr 6PM TH to 545 PM Sat. But can further erode confidence,” Zarif wrote, hinting that France was indeed responsible for scuttling the talks. “Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?”
The administration also moved over the weekend to quell public concern in Israel about the Geneva talks. A senior U.S. official briefed reporters in Israel, smoothing over the disagreement with the French and disputing reports that the American delegation was in a greater hurry to make a deal than were other negotiating partners.
“We are not in a rush,” the official insisted, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Cirincione said the improvement in the U.S.-Iranian relationship in recent days has been remarkable, if perhaps less secretive than other rapprochements in American diplomacy.
“When Nixon went to China it was all pre-packaged and presented to us in two or three days and it was done,” the arms control advocate said. “The U.S.-Iranian [warming] is taking place right before our eyes. There have been more high-level discussions in the last two to three days than in the last two to three decades.”
Cirincione said he doubts that, despite some congressional opposition to the administration’s approach, there is really a willingness on Capitol Hill to deliberately shut down that diplomatic effort.
“There is no good alternative to this process,” he said.