The deadline for the much-anticipated P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran came and went Monday without Iran and the six countries comprising the group of negotiators presenting a final deal. Instead, the two sides agreed to extend the talks for another seven months.
U.S. lawmakers, out on their Thanksgiving recess, reacted to the news with frustration.
“What [Secretary of State John Kerry] has done is give the Iranians an extra 219 days to work on their atomic bomb,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told Washington Jewish Week in a phone interview. “That’s the one thing that the Iranians need is more time to finish their bomb. We should not be extending time indefinitely until we see a mushroom cloud over Iran.”
These sentiments were shared on both sides of the aisle, despite Democrats’ previous patience with the president.
“From what I heard so far, I’m extremely disappointed. It seems like this is becoming a de facto agreement of the status quo, and that to me is not good at all,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said. “It allows Iran to have a breakout capacity within a matter of a very short period of time. They do get some relief from the sanctions [as they continue without an agreement] so I don’t think it’s a good thing, and it seems to me that they’ve had a year to get to an agreement and that Iran is intentionally slow walking this.”
Cardin said he was not optimistic that the additional seven months would be productive, adding that he has not heard of any developments that could point to a clearer road map to a deal by the new June 30, 2015, deadline.
“It seems to me if they couldn’t reach an agreement now after a year, why do we think all of a sudden they’re going to have an acceptable agreement reached within the next few months?” he said. “I think Iran has always wanted to maintain its nuclear weapon capacity, and it looks like they are just maintaining the status quo, which to me is unacceptable.”
Although this comes as a major setback for the Obama administration, Kerry and American negotiators will have to continue negotiations under threats from the new GOP majority in both houses of Congress. For example, Congress may pass a bipartisan bill that includes tightening sanctions against Iran – something that the President Barack Obama has repeatedly promised to veto and has so far managed to prevent from coming to the Senate floor for a vote.
Echoing Iranian officials, including Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the administration has claimed that additional sanctions legislation passed by Congress while negotiations are taking place under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) would cause Iran to leave the negotiating table.
In Vienna on Monday, Kerry did his utmost to calm the situation and urge members of Congress not to take action on Iran when the new session begins in early January.
“I would say to those who are skeptical, those who wonder whether we should rush ahead down a different course, I believe the United States and our partners have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point,” Kerry said. “Many were quick to say that the Joint Plan of Action would be violated; it wouldn’t hold up; it would be shredded. Many said that Iran would not hold up its end of the bargain. Many said that the sanctions regime would collapse. But guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated. Iran has held up its end of the bargain. And the sanctions regime has remained intact.”
But Kerry and the administration’s pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears. Senate and House Republicans have been saying from the moment they won a landslide midterm election earlier this month that passing additional sanctions (they believe sanctions made Iran come to the negotiating table in the first place) was going to come up early on incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) agenda.
Waiting for a vote is the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013 (S. 1881), better known as the Menendez-Kirk bill, which rolls back the sanctions relief already provided to Iran under the JPOA and includes additional sanctions if negotiations end without a final agreement.
Speaking to WJW, Kirk expressed certainty that a version of the Menendez-Kirk bill will appear on the floor when the new majority takes over the Senate, but added the timing of when to put the bill on the floor for a vote is up to McConnell.
“The argument I will be making to Mitch is a vote on Menendez-Kirk is an ideal scene setter for the new Republican majority,” said Kirk. “To have so many prominent Democrats with us, it’s a great bipartisan vote to start off the Republican majority in the Senate. And that’s the argument that I will be making.”
According to Kirk, the bill has 60 co-sponsors, 17 of them Democrats including Cardin, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.). Additionally, though not yet added to the tally of co-sponsors, 11 incoming Republican senators-elect released a joint statement on Nov. 12 which was sympathetic to rolling back the nearly $14 billion in sanctions relief given Iran already during the course of the negotiations.
“My job will be to try to build veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate,” said Kirk. “I think that given people’s views on Iran, we should be able to do that. That’s the right signal for the president to send to Iran.
“My job is to lead a bipartisan coalition in the Senate on this issue – to make sure that the Senate Democrats have signed on to where there’s a full bipartisan effort.”
For the Israelis, who have attacked the negotiations since they started last year and made it their number one priority, the lack of a deal came as a relief. Most Israeli officials believed that if any deal was to come from the talks – based on leaks from inside sources – it would include significant concessions to Iran’s regime.
“No deal is better than a bad deal. The deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with the BBC. “The deal would have left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atom bomb while removing the sanctions. The right deal that is needed is to dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atomic bombs, and only then, dismantle the sanctions. Since that’s not in the offing, this result is better. A lot better.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman-elect Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) both released statements slamming Iran and the Obama administration and hinted at the sanctions battle that lies ahead.
“Better an extension than a bad agreement that at one point looked like it might be coming. But if Iran hasn’t been able to make difficult choices over the past year, there is little reason to think that the Supreme Leader will see it differently over the next few months,” said Royce in a statement released by his office.
“One thing that could change Tehran’s resistance to agreeing to a meaningful and effective agreement to keep it from developing a nuclear weapon is more economic pressure. Since the beginning of these negotiations, the Administration aggressively opposed Congressional attempts to give our negotiators more leverage with added sanctions, to go into force should negotiations fail. We’ll never know if that prospect would have made a difference over the past 12 months. But we do know that talks haven’t succeeded without more pressure.
“This seven month extension should be used to tighten the economic vice on Tehran – already suffering from falling energy prices – to force the concessions that Iran has been resisting.”
Royce, along with his committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), co-sponsored their own Iran sanctions bill last year, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act (H.R. 850) which passed a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives last year with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
Corker, who will be an essential actor in foreign policy legislation in the next Congress, warned the administration to abandon the strong-arm, anti-Congress tactics it has threatened to use to keep Congress from interfering in the administration’s foreign policy decisions.
“With so much riding on these talks for the security of our nation and that of the region,” said Corker, “Congress must have the opportunity to weigh in before implementation of any final agreement and begin preparing alternatives, including tougher sanctions, should negotiations fail.”
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