Iran extensions underscore Obama’s dilemma in talks

With a skeptical Congress and significant political capital already invested in bid for a deal, delays put White House in tight spot

US President Barack Obama speaks to the press at the White House in Washington, DC, March 31, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/JIM WATSON)
US President Barack Obama speaks to the press at the White House in Washington, DC, March 31, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/JIM WATSON)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s willingness to extend Iranian nuclear talks at least twice this week has laid bare the dilemma he faces as he pursues a high-stakes accord.

Walking away from negotiations would strip Obama of a legacy-shaping deal, deeply complicate international efforts to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of a bomb, and perhaps raise the specter of U.S. military action against Tehran’s nuclear installations. But by blowing through self-imposed deadlines, Obama risks further antagonizing lawmakers in both parties who are poised to take their own action to upend a deal if they feel the president has been too conciliatory to Tehran.

The initial response to the extensions from Republicans suggested they had already come to that conclusion.

“The longer the Obama administration stays at the negotiating table with Iran, the more concessions it makes,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines said the desire for successful negotiations “should not blind the Obama administration from the reality that only Iran is benefiting from the current approach.”

Citing progress in the marathon negotiations, the U.S. and its international negotiating partners agreed earlier this week to ignore a March 31 deadline to reach a framework agreement with Iran. After an extra day of talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, the negotiators agreed to continue their discussions at least into Thursday.

The end-of-March benchmark was part of a two-pronged blueprint to bring the negotiations to a close. The U.S. and its partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — aimed to reach a framework agreement on major issues by March, then finalize technical details by the end of June.

Obama was able to use the prospect of a March framework to keep Congress at bay. Earlier this year, skeptical Democrats agreed to put off supporting a new Iran sanctions bill while negotiators tried to hammer out a framework. While Republicans control the Senate, they would need support from some Democrats in order to override an Obama veto.

Congress is on a two-week recess, giving Obama some breathing room as negotiations continue. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office reiterated Wednesday that the chamber would vote on an Iran measure regardless of the outcome of the talks.

If a framework is reached, McConnell wants to hold a vote on a measure that gives Congress authority to approve, reject or amend a deal. Obama has vowed to veto that legislation.

If no framework is agreed upon, the Senate would vote on a separate measure slapping Iran with another round of economic sanctions. The president has warned that implementing sanctions in the midst of negotiations could upend the delicate diplomacy, but it’s unclear whether he would sign the measure if the talks had ground to a halt.

Obama has invested significant political capital in reaching a nuclear accord with Iran, straining the longstanding U.S. alliance with Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat, and putting congressional Democrats in a difficult spot. Faced with turmoil throughout the Middle East and a fierce conflict between Russia and Ukraine, a nuclear deal would be a much-needed bright spot for Obama in his presidency’s closing years.

The negotiations center on curtailing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from biting international sanctions. The U.S. and much of the international community say Iran is pursuing a bomb, while Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

White House officials say Obama is willing to walk away from a bad deal but doesn’t want to be beholden to what they have called largely arbitrary deadlines. Officials insisted the extensions would end eventually if negotiators stopped making progress, but they’ve refused to specify how much longer Obama was willing to wait.

“This is not an open-ended commitment to talking that we’re willing to make here,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “The time has come for Iran to make some decisions and we’re hopeful that they’ll do that.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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