Obama 'a bit' optimistic on Iran deal, says former State Dept. official

A former top State Department official who worked on negotiations with Iran says President Obama might be too hopeful that a final deal on its nuclear program can be reached. 

The interim deal struck in November between the United Nations P5+1 group — the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China — and Iran takes effect next Monday. The deal freezes the program and limits enrichment capabilities. If Iran complies after six months, the partners hope to strike a final deal that would permanently weaken Iran’s nuclear program. 

Robert Einhorn, who worked as Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief adviser on nonproliferation and arms control issues, says achieving that outcome will be difficult.

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“This is going to be a very hard negotiation. The expectations for an acceptable outcome is very different in Washington than Tehran. The president gave a 50-50 possibility. I think, frankly, that may be a bit on the optimistic side. It’ll be a very hard slog to get a final deal,” Einhorn said during a conference call Thursday, hosted by the Israel Policy Forum.

Einhorn also served as Hillary Clinton’s secretary on nonproliferation when she headed the State Department. He left the department last spring, and is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The White House said last week that a fresh bipartisan sanctions bill in Congress could lead the United States into war.

While Einhorn said the administration’s “rhetoric” went “overboard,” he agrees the legislation could have a “counterproductive” effect. The bill could not only end negotiations with Iran, but it also makes military force an alternative, he says.

“It’s very important for members of Congress to look clearly at the alternatives here and ask themselves whether it’s worth the risk of scuttling negotiations by going forward with this bill,” Einhorn said.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would impose new and tougher sanctions against Iran. Lawmakers say they wouldn’t be implemented during the six-month interim deal period.

That’s not necessarily true, Einhorn warns. He points out that the bill would require Obama to certify every 30 days that Iran has not tested a long-range missile and has not assisted directly or indirectly in terrorism against U.S. interests. 

Therefore, the new sanctions could take effect within the six months. The White House has vigorously lobbied the bill's sponsors to not move forward on it, and has threatened to veto it. The members, however, hope to override a veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

In recent days, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has signaled he would hold off on putting the bill up for an immediate vote. In a White House meeting with Democratic senators on Wednesday, Obama reportedly tried to strongly persuade them to back down.

The interim deal is set to expire in late July.