By Justin Sink - 07/14/14 04:33 PM EDT
The White House won’t rule out extending nuclear talks with Iran as prospects for a deal stalled ahead of a looming July 20 deadline.
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to recommend a "way forward" to President Obama after negotiations this week in Vienna.
"He's going to report back to the president and then we'll be able to give you an update about whether or not an extension is something that we would either find necessary or even desirable," he added.
Prospects for a breakthrough deal before the deadline seemed grim, with Kerry telling staffers at the U.S. embassy in Vienna that it was a "really tough negotiation."
Earnest conceded that on some "key issues," Tehran "is yet to be able to make the decisions that are necessary to prove to the world that their nuclear program is exclusively peaceful."
"That ultimately is where the significant gaps remain," he said.
But the White House also signaled reason for hope, with Earnest praising Iranian negotiators for coming to the talks "in a serious matter."
"To its credit, Iran has defied the expectations of some by actually fulfilling the obligations under the joint plan of action," he said.
"You'll recall that that joint plan of action was predicated on Iran taking some steps to roll back their nuclear program in exchange for some limited relief of their sanctions regime that's been imposed,” Earnest continued. “The Iranians have also engaged in the comprehensive negotiations in a serious way and demonstrated some flexibility in the context of those negotiations."
Earnest defended the administration's decision to enter the negotiations with Iran. As part of the deal, Iran agreed to open talks and freeze its nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
"We saw the Iranians make significant steps toward implementing an agreement that actually rolled back their nuclear plan and rolled back their nuclear capability in a way that has demonstrated their seriousness in pursuing these negotiations," Earnest said. "But it has also succeeded in deescalating tensions."
An extension of negotiations is sure to draw criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and the Israeli government, which has objected to the talks from the beginning.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Iran as “the preeminent terror empire of our time" during an interview Sunday with Fox News.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes but the international community fears Tehran is building weapons.
“If they wanted to just have civilian nuclear energy they could have it without centrifuges for enrichment, without plutonium, the heavy water — this is only used for nuclear weapons,” he said. “So this is a sham.”
Netanyahu said he believed "a bad deal is actually worse than no deal."