Ronald Zak/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry address the media after the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna Monday.

Iran nuclear talks extended, so Congress might turn up the heat

An extension of the Iran nuclear talks is better than a bad deal, but many in Congress will want to use the next few months to further ramp up pressure on Tehran.

The extension or Iran nuclear talks into next summer – with the broad outlines of a deal to be reached in principal by March – would seem to put off any confrontation with Iran well into 2015.

But much could depend on reaction in Congress, where already intense skepticism of any deal with Iran is likely to grow only stronger once Republicans take control of the Senate and reinforce their majority in the House in January.

Early reaction to the announcement out of Vienna Monday that talks will be extended another seven months was muted, with “no deal is better than a bad deal” typifying immediate response.

But a bipartisan group of congressional leaders seems likely to push ahead on a new round of sanctions on Iran, acting from the position that it is sanctions that have kept Iran at the negotiating table – and that a further turning of the screws would focus minds further in the coming months of negotiations.

“This seven-month extension should be used to tighten the economic [vise] on Tehran – already suffering from falling energy prices – to force to force the concessions that Iran has been resisting,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.

Such a lengthy extension “tells me that the negotiators aren’t close to agreement” and that Iran will remain on the path of talking but no deal-making unless another layer of sanctions gets its attention, he added.

Some nonproliferation experts warn, however, that new sanctions would likely prompt a reaction from Tehran – and a collapse of negotiations – despite the current progress.

Tightening sanctions “will most certainly provoke Iran to take escalatory measures that shorten the time it would take to amass material for nuclear weapons, worsen the chances for an effective diplomatic resolution, and lead to yet another Middle East crisis,” says Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball.

An opposing view – which resonates among many in Congress – is that the extension plays into Tehran’s game plan. While it extends a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program, including a rollback of the uranium enrichment activity crucial to building a nuclear weapon, it also extends $700 million in sanctions relief.

“This delay will only benefit Iran’s negotiating position in further talks, as its economy continues to recover due to the current sanctions relief,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, in congressional testimony last week.

Not everyone on Capitol Hill buys that argument. Monday’s extension “keeps the pressure on Iran” because “painful sanctions will stay in place,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, in a statement.

Few in Congress are likely to blast the extension if the alternative was a “bad deal,” some nonproliferation experts say. They add that a more likely response will be to accept the extension as an opportunity to ramp up pressure on Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Monday.

“Anyone who says this decision today is unacceptable will find themselves on the extreme of Israel, and will have a hard time defending it,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of Washington’s Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “But [Mr. Netanyahu] was also emphatic about turning up the sanctions, and I think Congress will try its best to do that.”

One option for Congress could be to approve a new round of sanctions that would kick in only in the event of failed talks.

Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who will become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in January, hinted at this possibility Monday, saying in a statement that Congress should “begin preparing alternatives, including tougher sanctions, should negotiations fail.”

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