Iran talks slip by deadline


The Obama administration’s effort to reach a nuclear deal with Iran stretched past its latest deadline Tuesday, as U.S. officials expressed confidence that they could still reach an agreement. 
"We've made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said. “There are several difficult issues still remaining.”
The administration previously aimed to have a political framework completed by March 31. 
The U.S. and five other world powers are negotiating an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief. 
But negotiators in Switzerland haven’t been able to agree on key details, such as the pace of sanctions relief and the scope of uranium enrichment, according to the Associated Press
President Obama convened a secure videoconference Tuesday evening to receive an update on the talks. 
"The president received an update on the current status of the negotiations from Secretaries Kerry and Moniz and other members of the negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland and thanked the team for their continuing efforts," National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement. 
Nearly 20 administration officials took part in the call, including Vice President Biden, chief of staff Denis McDonough and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
“If we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. 
Earnest said Obama would be willing to walk away from a “bad deal,” which does not shut off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb and require it to submit to intrusive inspections of its nuclear sites. 
“It certainly won’t be the outcome that he prefers, but what is also true is that no deal is far better than a bad deal,” Earnest said. 
The administration would not set a hard deadline for the end of talks, but Earnest indicated they would not last until June 30, when an agreement facilitating the talks expires. 
“If we’re not able to reach a political agreement, we are not going to wait all the way until June 30 to walk away,” Earnest said. 
White House is dealing with rising pressure from Congress to move legislation that would impose sanctions on Iran that could scuttle the deal. 
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) announced Monday he would back a bipartisan bill to allow Congress to review any Iran nuclear deal.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, arguing that it would torpedo the talks with Iran. 
Lawmakers in both parties want a bigger say in the Iran negotiations, arguing they have been shut out of the process. But administration officials have urged members of Congress to hold off on any legislation that would give Congress a vote in the deal, at least until negotiations conclude in the next several months. 
Warner’s backing of the measure, sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), brings supporters just three votes away from having a veto-proof majority. 
The White House expressed confidence it could marshal enough congressional support for a deal with Iran. 
Earnest said officials have been in “close touch” with members of Congress to share updates on the negotiations. He said lawmakers would have an opportunity to “evaluate” a deal if one is reached. 
“We are hopeful both Democrats and Republicans will set aside their partisan interests and actually evaluate the agreement based solely on the national security interests of the United States,” he said. “And if they do that, I’m confident we will have substantial support for this agreement.”
Republican leaders remain skeptical Obama will strike a deal that will block Iran from developing a bomb and are prepared to move on legislation.  
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during a visit to Israel last weekend that if there is an agreement, the Senate would vote on the Corker-Menendez bill, but if there was no agreement, it would seek to ratchet up sanctions through separate legislation.
“The group who are here share your concerns about this potential agreement," McConnell said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 
But the White House accused Republicans of inflaming partisan tensions surrounding the negotiation process. Earnest pointed to an open letter to Iran’s leaders signed by 47 GOP senators. 
“We have on occasion seen Republicans act in a brazenly partisan fashion to try to undermine a deal,” Earnest said. “We are hopeful that that kind of partisan fever has subsided.”
Whether the White House can frame the agreement as progress and peel off Democratic support for Iran legislation largely depends on framework's details. 
"The main thing that the president is looking for is enough to get the more hawkish Dems and the more moderate Republicans to feel like it's worth it to keep talking at this point," said J. Matthew McInnis, resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former senior Pentagon analyst. 
The first test of the White House's clout with Congress will come April 14, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote on the Corker-Menendez bill to give lawmakers time to weigh any deal before it's implemented.
The White House has successfully lobbied Democrats on the committee in the past to delay a vote until after the end of March, but aides to Corker and Menendez indicated the vote would go forward.  
The bill is expected to pass the committee. But the White House could try to win over some off the bill's 10 Democratic co-sponsors or other Democratic supporters who might be loath to embarrass the president before the measure reaches the Senate floor. 
The White House's veto threats could pose a challenge for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is a co-sponsor of both the approval bill and the sanctions bill. 
The New York senator is expected to succeed Harry Reid as Democratic leader when he retires in 2016 and has come under pressure from the left to work with the administration. 
"For Schumer, this is going to be a real test for his leadership," said McInnis.  
- Updated at 4:54 p.m.