-- With three days left until this round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program concludes, the outcome appeared so uncertain today that Secretary of State John Kerry reversed his travel plans, first announcing that he would be leaving Vienna, where negotiators have huddled, for Paris, and a few hours later saying he’d actually be staying in the Austrian capital.
Most observers and some participants have said a comprehensive deal by the start of next week is probably not going to happen.
“Right now, I think it's going to be difficult to get to where we want to go. It's not impossible,” Tony Blinken, the nominee to be the next deputy secretary of state, added during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Iran and the Western negotiators, made up of the United States plus five permanent members of the U.N .Security Council and Germany, remain far apart on many of the core issues under discussion, including the number and kind of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep, under a final deal, in order to enrich uranium for a peaceful nuclear program; the length of such a deal; and the way in which economic sanctions on Iran get phased out.
But on the off chance the sides do reach a deal by Monday, members of Congress are already signaling they will seek to impose additional sanctions on Iran if it continues any nuclear activity, even for what it contends is a peaceful civilian program.
Many skeptics of an Iran nuclear deal say they don’t want diplomacy to fail, but they also don’t believe the Iranian regime is sincere in its desire for a strictly peaceful nuclear program. It has become a common refrain in Washington and Israel that no nuclear deal is better than a bad on; it just depends on one’s definition of a “bad” deal. Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu warned in a video message earlier this month against “rush[ing] into a deal that would let Iran rush to the bomb.”
In this way, the potential failure of these talks might give relief to those doubters, like Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He testified in Congress Thursday, saying negotiation is the right way to go, but “the dispute that is taking place now is between those who are skeptical of Iran and those who may be skeptical but they fundamentally believe … that we have a chance to fundamentally change the Iranian regime's approach to its nuclear weapons program.”
Those participating in the negotiations have warned that failure to reach a deal could lead to dire consequences. “There’s no question that, if everything goes away, escalation will be the name of the game on all sides, and none of that is good,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. negotiator, said in a speech Oct. 23.
But others contend that no one really knows what would happen if these talks fail. Asked that question in the same hearing as Dubowitz, Gen. Michael Hadyen, who served as the director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency during the George W. Bush administration, responded, “That's why we left this, an ugly baby, for the next administration. We didn't have any good answers.”
Secretary of State John Kerry may have tipped his hand to what the parties believe will happen when he said during remarks in Paris Thursday, “we’re driving towards what we believe is the outline of an agreement that we think we can have” – a far cry from a comprehensive deal.
More likely is another interim agreement that extends the talks with the stipulation that Iran continue to freeze progress on aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. That’s what happened back in July, when the negotiations were originally supposed to end, and the parties decided to extend until No. 24, which is three days away.
But even in the past month, the political situation in the United States has only gotten more hostile to a deal with Iran. Forty-three Republican senators, plus 11 incoming GOP senators-elect, have already pledged they will attempt to impose additional sanctions on Iran if it's allowed to continue any nuclear development in a final agreement.