A yearlong effort to seal a nuclear deal with Iran fizzled Monday, leaving the U.S. and its allies little choice but to declare a seven-month extension in hopes that a new deadline will be enough to achieve what a decade of negotiations have failed to do — limit Tehran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western foreign ministers converging on Vienna in a last-ditch diplomatic push talked up the add-on time as the best way forward. “We would be fools to walk away,” Kerry declared.
But a week of tough maneuvering appeared to have achieved little more than agreement to keep on talking. Negotiators will now strive to nail down by March 1 what Iran and the six world powers it is negotiating with must do, and by when. A final agreement is meant to follow four months later.
Pushback from critics in Congress was not long in coming, reflecting the concern of powerful Republicans that Iran is merely trying to buy time through talks — criticism that is likely to increase if negotiations yield little progress in capping Iranian programs that could make nuclear weapons.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called the extension better than “a bad agreement,” but urged “more economic pressure” while negotiations continue – shorthand for additional sanctions, something the U.S. administration strongly opposes because it fears it will push Tehran away from the table.
Members of the new Republican-controlled Congress to be sworn in early next year have already threatened to impose additional sanctions on Iran and may well have enough votes to overturn an expected veto by President Barack Obama.
Kerry urged patience, saying he hoped congressional skeptics would “come to see the wisdom” of giving talks an extra “few months to be able to proceed without sending messages that might be misinterpreted.”
In Tehran, hard-liners fearful that their country will give away more than it gets under any final deal may increase pressure on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to break off talks. Still, the latest extension appears to have the approval of Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter in his country.
Positive comments by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reflected Khamenei’s backing. “Many gaps have been eliminated,” Rouhani said in a statement, though he added the sides were “still some distance” from a deal.