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.