Iran nuclear talks: If Kerry seeks extension, will Congress go along?

Kerry’s assessment of the state of negotiations between world powers and Iran suggests he is likely to recommend some extension in the talks when he meets with Obama and congressional leaders this week.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference in Vienna July 15, 2014. Kerry on Tuesday dismissed the idea that Iran could maintain its current number of nuclear enrichment centrifuges as part of a long-term deal with six world powers that would lead to a gradual end of sanctions.

With a Sunday deadline for reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program bearing down, Secretary of State John Kerry returns to Washington late Tuesday with this appraisal for President Obama: getting closer, but no deal yet.

Mr. Kerry’s cautiously positive assessment of the state of play in the negotiations between world powers and Iran, offered Tuesday in Vienna, suggests Kerry is likely to recommend some extension in the talks when he meets this week with Mr. Obama and with congressional leaders.

That extension would almost certainly not be the full six months that an interim agreement reached last November allows for, but would most likely be limited to a matter of weeks, nonproliferation experts close to the negotiations say.

But even a few weeks may be too much for a Congress that is largely dubious about the negotiations that got under way in late January. Some members are already seizing on the likely inability to reach a comprehensive deal by the July 20 deadline to call on the Obama administration to throw in the towel on the talks and hobble Iran with a new round of sanctions.  

Kerry’s wary optimism about the prospects for reaching a deal with Iran appears to stem from a new proposal from the Iranian side that amounts to a verifiable freeze on Iran’s nuclear program for an unspecified number of years.

Under its proposal Iran – in return for accepting the freeze on a program it regards as its right as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) – would at the end of the freeze be free to pursue the peaceful nuclear power program it envisions for itself.

The Iranian proposal is not acceptable to the United States and other world powers in the talks as it stands, Kerry indicated Tuesday. But his tone – more positive than had been expressed by senior US officials in recent days – suggests the US now sees something to work with and worth pursuing beyond Sunday.

“There has been tangible progress on key issues, and we had extensive conversations in which we moved on certain things,” Kerry said at a short press conference in Vienna. “However there are also very real gaps on other key issues.”

Kerry said his “lengthy conversations” with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had convinced him there is “a path forward,” but that it was “clear that we still have work to do.”

One glaring issue to be addressed – and presumably one of the key “gaps” Kerry was referring to – is the wide gulf between the number of nuclear centrifuges Iran would be allowed to operate under its freeze proposal and the number the US sees as acceptable.

Under the interim agreement Iran is operating about 10,000 centrifuges, the machines that spin uranium at supersonic speed to deliver nuclear fuel – which at 5 percent purity is sufficient for a power plant, but which at 90 percent purity is weapons-grade fuel.

The US has said it wants a rollback from the number of centrifuges operating and could not accept more than about 5,000.  The Obama administration believes that number would extend the “breakout” time for Iran to assemble the fuel for a nuclear weapon to about a year. The Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA) estimates that the centrifuges Iran currently has operating could deliver the fuel for one nuclear bomb in about six months.

ACA nonproliferation analyst Kelsey Davenport describes as a “positive note” Kerry’s assessment in Vienna that all the parties to the talks are “negotiating in good faith.” Kerry further said that allowing Iran “an exclusively peaceful nuclear program” while giving the world assurances that the program will never result in a nuclear weapon are “goals [that] are not incompatible.”

Such positive assessments do not appear to extend to Congress, however, where Kerry will need to make the case for an extension of talks if the administration decides one is warranted.

Kerry was still in the air on his way back to Washington when one congressional leader seized on the secretary of state’s comments to call for a shift from talks to tougher economic pressure on Iran.

“In light of Secretary Kerry’s comments today in Vienna that ‘very real gaps’ remain between Iran and the international community, my hope is that the administration will finally engage in robust discussions with Congress about preparing additional sanctions against Iran,” the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California, said in a statement.

The senior Democrat on the same committee also cast doubt on any continuation of the talks, saying he was “disappointed” by the results of six months of talks and adding that Iran’s latest proposal “doesn’t give negotiators much to work with.”

Rep. Elliot Engel (D) of New York said in a statement Tuesday that Iran’s proposal to basically freeze its program where it is under the interim agreement is unacceptable because it would allow “a relatively rapid ‘breakout’ by Iran” to nuclear weapons capability.

Last week two senators, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, sent a letter to the White House demanding that any comprehensive deal with Iran include “intrusive” inspections of all of Iran’s nuclear facilities “for at least 20 years.”

Iran has said for months that any additional measures targeting its hard-hit economy would close the door on negotiations and free it from the restrictions on its nuclear program it agreed to in November.

Iran has also hinted that it wants the terms of any comprehensive agreement enforced for no more than five years, although administration officials have said they would want to see Iran face verifiable restrictions on uranium enrichment for a number of years to be measured in “double digits.”

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