White House hopes for a nuclear deal with Iran —a top foreign policy achievement for President Obama — seemed in danger of crumbling on Tuesday.
Negotiators extended their talks again in Geneva, as Iran made new hard-line demands, including that the United Nations lifts its arms embargo on the country.
It was the second time the parties blew through a deadline since the original June 30 cutoff, and it raised fresh questions on whether Obama’s push to use diplomacy to cut off Tehran’s path to a nuclear weapon can succeed.
The White House acknowledged a number of difficult issues stand in the way of a deal but said the countries involved have “never been closer to reaching a final agreement than we are now.”
“That’s an indication that these talks, at least for now, are worth continuing,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
At the same time, Earnest declined to put odds on reaching a deal. “I’m not feeling like a betting man today,” he said.
The parties extended an interim agreement to July 10, allowing the talks to last into Friday. But Iran is warning it won’t sit at the negotiating table indefinitely.
“We’ve come to the end,” an Iranian official told Reuters on Tuesday. “Either it happens in the next 48 hours or not.”
The stakes are high for Obama. Along with his bid to re-establish ties with Cuba, the Iran deal is a major test of the president’s doctrine of engaging with the U.S.’s traditional adversaries to address common interests.
If the talks falter, it would wipe away an elusive legacy-defining foreign policy achievement for Obama, who has grappled with instability in the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
While Obama is riding the momentum from a series of successes on the domestic front, on trade, same-sex marriage and healthcare, failure on Iran could blunt his gains.
“He had secured his domestic legacy in a pretty dramatic fashion in the last two weeks. That’s always been his No. 1 priority,” said James Jeffrey, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former ambassador to Iraq under Obama. “He realizes his international legacy is a mess.”
Obama has spent a tremendous amount of political capital in pursuit of the deal — both with Democrats in Congress and the U.S.’s traditional allies in Persian Gulf states and Israel, who fear the deal could embolden Iran in its pursuit of dominance in the Middle East.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged last week the president is “taking on some sacred cows” in dealing with hostile regimes.
But he said the aim of dealing with Iran is to avoid being pulled into another conflict in the Middle East while preventing it from becoming a nuclear power.
Administration officials told The Wall Street Journal Monday that they hope a successful Iran deal could open the door to resolving lingering conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where Iran is involved.
But Obama is coming under pressure from lawmakers in both parties not to agree to a deal at all costs.
On Tuesday evening, the president met with Senate Democrats at the White House, where he was expected to sooth members of his party who are worried about the talks.
Influential Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (Md.), have demanded “anytime, anywhere” inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
But those conditions are unlikely to be met, making it tougher for the administration to prevent a veto-proof majority from voting to disapprove of a deal, if one is reached.
Complicating that effort further is the fact that a deal is unlikely to be reached by Thursday, when the congressional review period doubles from 30 days to 60 days. That could allow opposition to build.
Republicans were emboldened in their calls for Obama to walk away from the talks following Tuesday’s extension.
“The stakes are too high for this diplomatic charade to continue,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a 2016 presidential candidate, said in a statement. “Iranian leaders continue to walk back previous commitments, even as they actively sponsor terrorism, pursue regional domination and hold American citizens hostage.”
At the same time, Obama seems to understand the risks failure could pose to his legacy.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he told The Atlantic in May.
Obama is closely following the talks, receiving updates from national security adviser Susan Rice and other aides multiple times daily, Earnest said.
There are major risks for Iran too. The regime in Tehran desperately wants relief from international sanctions related to its nuclear program, which have crippled the country’s economy.
Sanctions caused its gross domestic product to shrink by 5 percent in 2013, and its economy has recovered only slightly since an interim agreement was reached that year.
Despite the delay, Jeffrey believes Obama is in a strong position heading into the final stretch of the talks.
He predicted the president’s legacy would not be hurt if, at this point, a deal falls through because Iranian intransigence.
“By taking a tough position at the talks to the point where we’ll walk out or the Iranians will have to walk out — we’re basically making it clear to the Iranians that we can’t be pushed around,” he said. “That we are deadly serious in this process.”