The Obama administration is entering a critical two-week stretch in its effort to win a historic nuclear deal with Iran.
Negotiators from the U.S., Iran and five other world powers resumed talks in Switzerland on Monday, with optimism running high that a deal will be struck ahead of the late March deadline.
But a number of stumbling blocks remain, including the question of how quickly Iran would be freed from international sanctions that are crippling its economy.
The White House, meanwhile, is trying to keep the talks on track in the face of opposition back home, with Republicans warning in an open letter last week that any deal could be undone by Congress or the next president.
Iranian negotiators reportedly confronted Secretary of State John KerryJohn Kerry3 issues to watch at climate summit The real reason Biden is going to the COP26 climate summit The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Budget negotiators: 72 hours and counting MORE about the letter on Monday and pressed him for a firmer timeline on lifting sanctions.
“It is necessary that the stance of the U.S. administration be defined about this move,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, according to Iranian state media.
Despite the challenges that remain, close observers expect that the so-called P5+1 group will announce the framework for a deal later this month.
“I suspect there will be some kind of a framework or an agreement in principle this week as we come closer to a March deadline,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department adviser on Iran.
A pact would be a foreign policy victory for President Obama, who has insisted since his 2008 campaign that diplomacy — and not military action — would be the best way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
It would also come just months after Obama’s move to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, another longtime adversary of the United States.
The talks are intensifying ahead of the Persian New Year celebration of Nowruz, which marks a time of spring and renewal.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last week said it’s “crunch time” for securing a deal.
The success of the talks could come down to Kerry and Zarif, who are navigating decades of hostility and mistrust, as they seek a deal that supporters say would dramatically increase the amount of time it would take Iran to build an atomic bomb.
Pressure points in the talks include the strength of Iran’s capacity for enriching uranium, which facilities would be open to international inspectors and how long the deal would last.
Some progress has been made on those fronts. The U.S. and its negotiating partners, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, could allow Iran to keep as many as 6,500 uranium centrifuges, according to media reports. U.S. officials reportedly want a 10-year freeze on Iranian nuclear activity, but Iran has not yet agreed to that time frame.
One of the thorniest issues is when the sanctions against Iran will be lifted.
Iranian officials reportedly want all U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions lifted as soon as a deal is reached, so oil exports can quickly begin. But the U.S. wants to ease sanctions over a longer period of time, with the relief contingent upon Iran abiding by restrictions on its nuclear program and thorough inspections of its nuclear facilities.
If a deal is signed, Iran will have to show “over the longer term” it is honoring the terms before sanctions are lifted, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
If Iran violates a deal, Earnest said, “we could snap those sanctions back into place with the stroke of a pen.”
The U.N. Security Council would have to vote to lift sanctions, though Obama or his successor could waive some penalties unilaterally.
Lifting all of the sanctions on Iran would require a vote from Congress, which might not happen for months or even years.
Congressional critics of the potential deal say it will not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, because the country’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact. They have also criticized Obama for shutting lawmakers out of the process.
Earnest on Monday called that criticism “baloney,” saying administration officials have had more than 200 conversations with House and Senate members about the talks.
Lawmakers are threatening to take matters into their own hands. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates MORE (D-N.J.) are proposing a bill that would give Congress 60 days to review a nuclear deal before it goes into effect.
“It appears they want to go straight to the United Nations Security Council and try to bind Congress by going that route,” Corker said on CNBC. “Obviously, we think that’s inappropriate.”
White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — House lawmakers eye military pay raise next year VA secretary pledges to house hundreds of homeless veterans in LA by end of year Expats plead with US to deliver COVID-19 vaccines MORE wrote a letter to Corker last weekend imploring him not to advance his bill, arguing it would damage the talks.
The White House says it hopes that Congress will not act on legislation, at least until the technical details of the Iran agreement are finalized in June.
“We can’t have a situation where you have some people in the Congress backseat driving,” Earnest said. “What we need is the support of Congress, which we have enjoyed all along, and the continuing efforts to consult with the administration as the talks are ongoing.”