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Six More Months – or More – for Iran Nuclear Negotiations?

WASHINGTON — The White House wouldn’t definitively say that it would extend the July 20 deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran, but seemed to be laying a groundwork of justification by highlighting what it says was good behavior by the Islamic Republic during the six-month interim agreement.

In a brief statement to reporters early this evening, President Obama did a rapid-fire hit on four foreign policy areas: Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and Russia, the last of which is now eligible for new sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

Reports emerged today that the P5+1 negotiators in Vienna were focusing on an agreement for an extension of the talks.

After admitting that “very real gaps” remain in nuclear negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled back to Washington from Vienna “to consult with the president and to begin consulting with members of Congress about the way forward,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today.

Obama said he received Kerry’s update, after which “it’s clear to me that we’ve made real progress in several areas, and that we have a credible way forward.”

“Over the last six months Iran has met its commitments under the interim deal we reached last year, halting the progress of its nuclear program, allowing more inspections and rolling back its most dangerous stockpile of nuclear material,” Obama said. “Meanwhile, we are working with our P5+1 partners and Iran to reach a comprehensive agreement that assures us that Iran’s program will, in fact, be peaceful and that they won’t obtain a nuclear weapon.”

He said as the July 20 deadline approaches, “there are still 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,” Obama said.

It’s been Congress’ complaint throughout the six-month process, though, that they’ve not received the promised close consultations from the administration.

Earnest painted the talks in a positive light.

“Over the last six months since the joint plan of action took effect, we’ve made tangible progress on a range of key issues in our negotiations with the Iranians. All of the parties to those talks, both the Iranians and the United States and the other members of the P5+1, have made good on the joint plan of action and that means that progress on Iran’s nuclear program has been halted and rolled back in some key respects. And we have been negotiating in good faith to try to reach an agreement,” Earnest said.

“There are some gaps that continue to remain and part of Secretary Kerry’s consultations with the president will involve a discussion about the path forward, which reflects the fact that some gaps remain here just four days before the preset deadline for these negotiations to end.”

Earnest said it was “clear” that Iran’s “track record over the last six months, I think many people would acknowledge has been surprisingly favorable.”

“There were a lot of people who were pretty skeptical about that six months ago. That skepticism was justified, so I don’t mean to be criticizing it in any way, but the fact is there have been constructive conversations,” he said.

But that skepticism hasn’t eroded among some Senate Democrats, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who on the floor of the upper chamber yesterday noted the “same obfuscation, same Iranian tactics we’ve seen for decades … that’s not an endgame – that’s a nonstarter.”

Menendez stressed that the only acceptable agreement is one that would set off alarm bells if Iran tries to attain nuclear weapons capability over the next 20 to 30 years.

Along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Menendez has been circulating a letter to President Obama around the Senate this week to gather signatures on the need for a tough stance against Tehran.

“As we wrote to you last March, we continue to believe that Iran must dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure, including the Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor, such that Iran does not retain a uranium or plutonium path to a weapon,” states the letter. “Any deal must also fully resolve concerns about military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program; provide a long-term and intrusive inspection and verification regime and a vigorous enforcement mechanism, that includes the snapback of sanctions should Iran fail to keep its commitments.”

Requirements of a final deal, they said, must include “a robust inspections and verification regime” at least 20 years long, “full disclosure by Iran on possible military dimensions of the nuclear program” with access given to inspectors “to the materials, documents, records and any staff involved in order to better understand Iran’s capabilities,” and any sanctions relief “phased in over a lengthy period of time.”

“Iran’s 20-year history of deception compels the international community to be vigilant to ensure no path to a nuclear bomb is possible,” the letter says.

Multiple groups stepped in as the letter was leaked beyond Congress to defend the Islamic Republic and decry the “hawks” in Congress, including Iranian media.

The National Iranian American Council sent its own letter to senators urging them to not sign the Menendez-Graham letter “that will complicate the talks and risk derailing negotiations during the most critical phase.”

“By sending this letter at this time and potentially playing spoiler, Senators risk sending the signal that the United States is the inflexible party that has undermined the diplomatic process,” NIAC continued.

They have an ally in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has blocked bipartisan sanctions bills and said this week that Congress shouldn’t be the final word in the administration’s decision to extend Iran’s deadline.

“The president has a lot of — he has authority on his own to extend the time. He doesn’t need our permission to do that,” Reid told reporters after a policy luncheon on the Hill Tuesday. “But I would hope that we would work together in a bipartisan fashion to move forward and I hope that we can get something done with the Iranians.”

Earnest praised Iran for compliance during the six-month interim period even as United Nations investigators determined that Iran has been violating the arms embargo by shipping weapons to Sudan, possibly as a transit point for Gaza or points in Northern Africa where al-Qaeda affiliates have blossomed.

“The successful implementation of the joint plan of action has allowed the international community’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program to be eased at least a little bit,” Earnest said. “That’s because we have seen Iran live up to that joint plan of action, to halt any progress that they’ve made as — as it relates to their nuclear program, and in fact, as a part of the joint plan of action, they’ve even rolled back some key aspects of that program.”

‘So, over the last six months, important progress has been made. And there has been a willingness on the part of both the Iranians and the P5+1 partners to live up to that agreement. That is indicative of a constructive process,” the spokesman continued.

“But nonetheless, there are four days that remain before the deadline, and the fact is that there are still gaps that remain. So, there are a number of paths forward for all of the parties to consider, and Secretary Kerry is consulting with the president this afternoon to make sense about what path would be in the best interest of the United States.”

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this morning, Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted that Tehran’s smuggling efforts are on full display as Hamas fires newly acquired longer-range rockets into Israel.

“In recent years, Iran has come under increasing strain from international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear program. This is what got Iran to the nuclear negotiation table. But even with its economy damaged, Iran has managed to provide robust support to extremist proxies as part of its broader geopolitical agenda across the region,” Royce said.

“Now the United States and other world powers are negotiating a final nuclear agreement with Iran that would lift most of its sanctions. Bad deal or good deal, and many of us fear a bad deal, any sanctions relief will bolster Iran. As one witness notes, Iran stands to gain about $100 billion in frozen bank accounts and billons as oil exports resume. That’s a lot of M-302 rockets.”

Experts have been testifying to congressional committees for months that they expected the administration to come back and say it needed an extension. “The concern about extension and going for a full year obviously is if Iran is gaming the system now in a way that puts them closer to being a threshold state,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing a month ago.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, said today the interim agreement “was just another ploy by the regime to win concessions and buy more time; now that the deadline approaches, an extension must not be given.”

“Instead we need to start reexamining our sanctions programs against Iran, and ways to counter its illicit and destabilizing activities,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

“There are six UN Security Council resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program – resolutions that demand that Iran not be allowed to enrich any uranium at all – and yet Iran continues to be in violation of those resolutions, it continues to make progress on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Yet from the very beginning, administration after administration have failed to hold the Iranian regime accountable for all of these aggressive acts,” she continued.

“The administration, as have many others before it with other rogue regimes, believes that a nuclear agreement can open up avenues for further cooperation, but as we have seen with North Korea and others that is never the case. What is the danger in dealing with Iran as if its nuclear program exists in a vacuum – that it is somehow not related to all of Iran’s other illicit and problematic areas?”