After missing a second deadline in a week on Tuesday for concluding the nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers, the US administration has begun to suggest the talks could continue without set timetables.
American officials insisted this week that the sides “have never been closer” to sealing up a deal that would scale back Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.
But that optimism hasn’t translated into agreement on key issues, including international inspections of Iranian military sites, the exact timeframe for sanctions relief after a deal is completed, and more.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Tuesday the US was unlikely to walk away from the talks even if they continued to miss calendar benchmarks.
“We’ve got some bipartisan agreement that this is an available approach that could benefit the United States and our negotiating partners in a way that continues to keep the pressure on Iran to reach a final agreement,” he said on Tuesday about the possibility of open-ended talks, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The US “won’t walk away from the table as long as the negotiations continue to be useful,” Earnest added.
President Barack Obama views an Iran deal as a key part of his administration’s legacy, and may now be looking for ways to sustain the negotiations despite repeated missed deadlines and the significant gaps that remain.
Diplomats had extended their discussions by a week when they missed their goal of a pact by June 30, after passing previous deadlines in July 2014 and last November. For Kerry and his team, pressure is increasing from skeptical US allies and members of Congress.
If the accord isn’t sent to Congress by Thursday, its monthlong review period would be doubled to 60 days, meaning the Obama administration couldn’t lift any economic sanctions on Iran during that time.
Perhaps ironically, continuing the negotiations without a deadline could suggest to Obama’s critics, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) who reportedly supports such a move, that the White House is sticking to key provisions on inspections, enrichment capacities and other issues despite Iranian intransigence.
“If you need to extend a third or a fourth time…this is still better than signing a half-baked deal,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu confidant who holds the Iran policy portfolio in the cabinet until November, said in an interview last month.
If the US convinces the remaining P5+1 powers – Germany, China, Russia, Britain and France – to agree to its open-ended approach, the interim agreement from last November, with its limited nuclear restrictions and equally limited sanctions relief, would remain in force for the duration of the talks, the Journal reported, quoting a senior diplomat.
American negotiators had hoped to finish the talks by Thursday, the deadline for submitting the deal to Congress, which will then have 30 days to examine it. According to a law passed by Congress earlier this year, if the deadline is missed, which officials say is all but certain, Congress will have yet another month to examine the document – and, the White House fears, to mobilize enough opposition to endanger the deal.
Corker, however, has counseled the administration to move slower, not faster. “Conceding on any remaining red lines just to avoid further congressional scrutiny would only make matters worse, so I again urge negotiators to hold firm, take their time and be prepared to step back from the table,” he said Tuesday.
The No. 2 Democrat in the US House, Rep. Steny Hoyer, told reporters Tuesday however the talks “ought to be brought to a close.”
“My concern has been that there would be a rope-a-dope sort of performance by Iran, that they’ll just string out these negotiations,” he said.
The American willingness to extend the talks indefinitely seems to run counter to some of the other powers taking part in the talks who are eager to conclude the negotiations one way or another.
“We’ve come to the end,” one diplomatic source in Vienna told Reuters on Tuesday. “We have just made one final extension,” the source added, referring to the decision to continue talks past Tuesday with the goal of concluding the negotiations by Friday. “It is hard to see how or why we would go beyond this. Either it happens in the next 48 hours, or not.”
Iranian officials, for their part, seemed to support the new American approach.
“If we can get it done…before July 9th, so much the better,” one senior Iranian negotiator said Monday, according to the Journal. “But we cannot sacrifice a good deal at the expense of meeting a deadline. In our opinion, [July 9] is an artificial deadline.”