By B. Cohen
With four days to go before the international deadline for an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program expires, the signs emerging from Vienna, where negotiations have been taking place, are that a final deal will not be agreed by Monday. Moreover, European leaders are said to be increasingly disillusioned with the American determination to grant more concessions to entice Iran into a deal, adding yet another layer of complexity to the deliberations.
Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will return to Paris later today for what Reuters described as “consultations.” Earlier reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was planning to leave Vienna for Tehran turned out to be false, with Iranian negotiators subsequently confirming that “the talks will continue.”
The obstacles to any deal are well-known, and little progress has been made to bridge the gaps between the two sides, despite the enthusiasm of the Obama Administration for a deal. Major powers in the shape of the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany – want Iran to reduce its number of centrifuges from the 19,000 currently in operation to 4,500, in order to delay Iran’s accumulation of the fissile material that would enable a nuclear weapon.
The Iranians are unhappy with the degree and timing of sanctions relief, insisting that sanctions should be terminated immediately rather than incrementally.
Nor is there agreement over the duration of any deal. The P5+1 is said to be looking for a 20 year deal, while the Iranians want something much shorter.
Domestic considerations are also coming to the fore, particularly in the United States, where unease with both the substance of any deal, and the possibility that President Obama will bypass Congress to secure it, is growing among legislators as well as the American public. “We did some polling last week, which we’ve not yet publicly released, which shows that 7 out of 10 Americans want Congressional approval of a deal,” said Josh Block, the President of The Israel Project, an Washington-DC based advocacy group, who is in Vienna monitoring the talks.
Western states are hardly in lockstep. The British government has sounded distinctly pessimistic that a deal is within reach, while Kerry is said to be anxious that the French government will not support a deal, having been unsuccessful in his earlier attempt to secure an undertaking from Fabius that no last minute objections would surface.
“There was a meeting in Vienna today of the French and British Foreign Ministers and the US Secretary of State which was described to me as ‘frosty,'” Block said. “That leads me to believe that the French and maybe the British will adopt a harder line than the Americans.”
The French, Block explained, have “fundamental objections” to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and want to avoid a deal that would cause non-nuclear states in the region to embark on nuclear programs.
Back in Washington, DC, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill) has said that he will “definitely” reintroduce sanctions legislation on Iran in the next Congress.
“I think the Republicans will definitely bring it up. It’s a movie we’re going to see again,” Kirk said on Capitol Hill. “The Republican majority will be working with [Sen. Mitch McConnell – R-KY] about when the time is to come up for a vote on that.”
President Obama will also have to keep a close eye on those Democratic Party legislators who will refuse to back a deal that does not explicitly prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Last year, 16 Democrats led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) joined the 59 co-sponsors of a bill to impose tough new sanctions on Iran in the event of a failed deal, but the legislation was blocked by outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) today released a statement declaring, “Along with my colleagues, who authored the bipartisan sanctions law that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table, I wish negotiations to succeed. But the success of negotiations can only be defined as an agreement that removes the threat of a world with a nuclear Iran.”
“Unless Iran is willing to agree to a final deal that prevents it from building, developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon, we should not allow any relaxation of sanctions,” Schumer said.