As Deadline Nears, Obama Hints Iran Nuclear Talks May be Extended

Patrick Goodenough | July 17, 2014 | 4:21am EDT
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President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

( – President Obama said Wednesday he would determine in the coming days whether to extend the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program beyond Sunday’s deadline, but he also hinted that he may do so.

“It’s clear to me that we have made real progress in several areas and that we have a credible way forward,” Obama said. “But as we approach a deadline of July 20th under the interim deal, there are still some significant gaps between the international community and Iran, and we have more work to do.”

“So over the next few days, we’ll continue consulting with Congress – and our team will continue discussions with Iran and our partners – as we determine whether additional time is necessary to extend our negotiations.”

Late last year the administration had suggested that if a comprehensive final agreement was not reached by the July 20 deadline, it would support new sanctions against Tehran.

In remarks on foreign policy at the White House, Obama – who took no questions – based the assessment of “real progress” on what he said he had heard from Secretary of State John Kerry and his national security team.

Kerry has just returned from Vienna, where he joined U.S. negotiators at the P5+1 talks with Iranian officials. The substance of the talks has not been made public, but Iran’s nuclear negotiator said this week his country wants to keep its 19,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges – a number Kerry said was “too many.” (Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week Iran needs to increase the number tenfold, to 190,000 centrifuges.)

Last November the P5+1 (the U.S., France, China, Britain, Russia and Germany) reached an interim nuclear agreement with Iran, the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA), granting Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program for six months, pending negotiations to finalize a comprehensive final agreement.

As the six-month period was about to begin, the administration voiced strong opposition to a move in Congress to pass legislation that would hold over Iran the threat of additional sanctions.

Under the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, those sanctions would only actually be imposed if Iran violated the agreement or allowed the interim period to run out without agreeing to a final deal. But the White House said despite its “deferred trigger” the measure would be seen as a sign of bad faith, and threatened to veto it if it passed.

The Joint Plan of Action did provide for the six-month period to be extended if necessary, by mutual consent of the parties. Even so, U.S. officials indicated at the time that the administration itself could push for new sanctions if the interim period ended without a comprehensive agreement.

“If the Iranians don’t get to a ‘yes’ at the end of six months, we can put in place more sanctions,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on November 26, while outlining the administration’s opposition to the draft legislation.

“The issue now is what can we do to help the next six months – how to proceed over the next six months toward a comprehensive agreement,” Psaki said on Dec. 9. “It doesn’t prevent us from putting new sanctions in place at any point if Iran violates an agreement, if at the end of it we don’t come to a comprehensive agreement. And we reserve that right, and the secretary will be leading the charge toward that.”

Ten days later Psaki’s State Department colleague, Marie Harf, said there was no need for the deferred-trigger legislation, “because you could do it at the end of six months overnight. It would be easy.”

Also on Dec. 19, then-White House press secretary Jay Carney used a similar argument in explaining the administration’s opposition to the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.

“If Iran does not comply with its obligations under the [JPOA], or if Iran fails to reach agreement with the P5+1 on the more comprehensive agreement over the course of six months, we are very confident that we can work with Congress to very quickly pass new, effective sanctions against Iran,” he said.

Reminded of her earlier words, Psaki said Wednesday she would have to look at the context of those comments.

“But I think our goal here has remained the same and we’re looking at the negotiations through the prism of what our goal is,” she said, adding that the discussion right now “is about whether there’s been enough progress made to continue these negotiations.”

‘Stalling tactic’

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act last December along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), said on his Twitter feed Wednesday that if the talks with Iran are extended beyond Sunday’s deadline “it’ll be time for more non-military pressure,” and urged support for the bill.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Iran has used the talks to buy time.

“It is not clear to me that the Iranians are serious about limiting their nuclear program and the limited sanctions relief President Obama has granted have been a disincentive for them to compromise and fully and verifiably abandon their ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon,” he said in a statement.

“I believe the Iranians are using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to buy time to continue their efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and a means to deliver it,” Inhofe said. “The sanctions were working and I believe we should immediately reinstate the full sanctions regime that existed before the interim agreement and consider additional sanctions as well.”

In a hawkish speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Menendez compared the Iran negotiations to those with North Korea in the 1990s, and said Pyongyang’s subsequent cheating and eventual nuclear weapons tests “should serve as a warning about what could happen if we allow Iran to maintain a robust nuclear infrastructure.”

He recalled that the administration has repeatedly stated that in the Iran negotiations, “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

“I agree with that statement,” he said. “But I am concerned that there are forces who would accept a deal, even if it is a bad deal.”

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