-- The foreign minister of Iran said tonight negotiators "accomplished quite a bit" today and he hopes that the process of drafting an agreement can begin Wednesday.
"We've accomplished quite a bit, but people needed to get some rest and start over early in the morning," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said. "And I hope we can finalize the work on Wednesday -- and hopefully begin the process of drafting tomorrow."
The State Department had said earlier today that negotiators trying to produce a nuclear accord with Iran would fail to meet their self-imposed March 31 deadline to come up with a broad political understanding about eliminating Iran's pathway to a bomb.
"We've made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement to reporters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the talks are being held. "There are several difficult issues still remaining."
President Obama was updated on the talks this evening in a teleconference with Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and other members of the negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Less than 24 hours ago, Harf said there was a "50/50" chance that they could come to a deal. Officials inside the negotiations are not commenting on why more time is needed, but the sticking points during these talks have been clear.
They've included disagreements on how many centrifuges -- which are used to enrich nuclear fuel -- might remain online at Iran's deep-buried Fordo nuclear reactor, whether or not Iran will be allowed to continue nuclear research and development for scientific purposes, and what to do with the stockpile of enriched uranium already owns.
Negotiators on all sides have been working towards this deadline since November 2013. That's when Iran and the so-called P5 +1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany) agreed on a Joint Plan of Action (JPA), an interim agreement that paved the way for talks by temporarily halting Iran's nuclear enrichment program and subjecting it to daily inspections in exchange for the loosening of some economic sanctions.
"If we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said today, but he added that if talks fail, then the U.S. would be forced to "consider some other alternatives."
Though there is still hope in Lausanne that an agreement can be reached, some in Congress are already calling this delay a failure of diplomacy.
"The decision to extend the nuclear negotiations in the face of Iranian intransigence and duplicity proves once again that Iran is calling the shots," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said in a statement. Cotton gained notoriety after authoring a controversial letter to Iran's supreme leader, warning in it that future U.S. presidents have the power to overturn any nuclear deal.
"The best solution is walk away from the nuclear negotiations now and return to a position of strength," Cotton added. "We should reinstate existing sanctions suspended under the Joint Plan of Action and Congress should act immediately to impose new sanctions. It's time for the United States to regain the upper hand and quit negotiating out of weakness."
Two weeks ago, 367 members of Congress, many of them Democrats, signed a letter expressing "grave and urgent" concern over the Iran nuclear negotiations. Many of them have threatened to derail any potential deal by voting to enact tougher economic sanctions on Iran. President Obama has threatened to veto that legislation, but it's possible Congress could get the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
Congress, however, is on a two week recess, which is one of the reasons the Obama administration believes it still has more time. Another reason has to do with the tentative agreements already in place.
A four-month extension was granted within the JPA last November that said the six world powers and Iran had until March 31 to reach a consensus on how to go forward. Essentially, that political understanding (due tonight) would outline what actions Iran has to take to dismantle its nuclear program and, in exchange, which economic sanctions on Iran would be lifted and when. That November agreement also stated that by June 30 there would be a formal, signed agreement, followed by implementation of the plan.
The State Department said Monday that technically the JPA extends through June 30 and therefore the parties are within their rights to negotiate up until that point. Earnest said today, however, that the White House is willing to abandon the talks if decisions are made soon and "we're not going to wait all the way until June 30th to walk away," he said.