As deadline nears for Iran nuclear talks, how will opponents of a deal react?

Negotiators know that opponents of a Iran nuclear deal in Washington and Tehran are ready to strike in the event of a deal or of a nebulous extension.

Ronald Zak/AP
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, sitting third left, former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, rear center, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, fourth right, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wait for the start of closed-door nuclear talks on Iran in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014.

Just after President Obama challenged Congress with his executive action on immigration, the administration may present congressional leaders with another tough nut – either a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal or an extension of nuclear talks with Tehran.

With foreign ministers from six world powers and Iran gathering in Vienna for the final hours of negotiations before a Monday deadline, signs are multiplying that something other than a breakdown of talks will occur. Either a broad framework of an agreement could be reached, or – perhaps more likely – some additional time will be announced to sort out remaining technical issues.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who had planned to leave Vienna for Paris on Friday, announced late in the day that he would remain overnight in Vienna to meet again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other senior officials involved in the talks.

One key reason the pressure is on is that negotiators know that opponents of a deal in Washington and Tehran are ready to strike in the event of no deal or of a nebulous extension.

The talks between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany were already extended once after an interim deal was reached a year ago.

“Both sides realize that a deal gets much harder after” the Monday deadline, says Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy for the Arms Control Association in Washington. “There are domestic constituencies in both Washington and Tehran that would make reaching a deal after the 24th more difficult.”

In Tehran, opponents of a deal are hard-liners who want to see no limits on Iran’s nuclear program. In Washington, the extremely wary constituency is Congress. Lawmakers have essentially been holding back in taking action, such as passing more sanctions on Iran.

On Thursday, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mark Kirk of Illinois sent a letter to Mr. Obama citing their “alarm” at “reports that your administration plans to circumvent Congress” and proceed “unilaterally” with an agreement. The senators say they fear the White House plans to grant Iran substantial sanctions relief in return for only “weak and dangerous” requirements for limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

The letter was cosigned by 41 other Republican senators.

But if a deal is struck, Obama is likely to hear howls of protest from more than just Republicans. Prominent Democrats, including New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have also sent warning shots about a “weak deal.”

One problem some proliferation experts see is that congressional action that ends up tying the president’s hands or scuttling a deal (for example, by imposing a new round of sanctions) would leave the world blaming the US. Any follow-on consequences of a breakdown – from a breakup of international consensus about keeping Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, to military action to deteriorate Iran’s nuclear facilities – would be laid at America’s feet.

If action initiated by Congress were to lead to “coercive action” against Iran, “the question is, who does the world blame?” says George Perkovich, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Responsibility for a breakdown would have “real consequences for maintaining international support” on restraining Iran’s nuclear program, says Mr. Perkovich, who continues, “I think the Iranians get that – but I don’t have a sense that many people on the Hill get that.”

One option Congress would have in the event of a deal with Iran, or of an extension of talks, would be to pass new sanctions, but to make any backsliding by Iran the trigger for implementation. Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who will take over the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, proposed something along those lines over the summer.

But others say most of what’s coming out of the Hill suggests Congress is intent on scuttling a deal that many members believe would be too lenient with Iran.

Congress is hearing the message of a “bad deal in the making” from a range of anti-Iran forces in Washington, from conservative pro-Israel groups to the Iranian opposition. Earlier this month, the National Council of Resistance of Iran took to Congress the finding of a secret investigation that Iran has undisclosed explosives research at its Parchin research facility.

Dylan Williams, director of government affairs for J Street, a lobbying group describing itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” says he has seen various “flavors of legislation” on Iran over recent months, ranging from “straight-up new sanctions” to initiatives on Iran’s human rights record or involvement in terrorism. But all of them, he says, seem to have a common objective.

“The intent in each of these cases,” he says, “is to frustrate this deal.” 

[Editor's note: The sub-headline of the original version of this story mischaracterized how opponents of a deal might react.]

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