By JOSH GERSTEINA ten-day delay in talks aimed at negotiating an interim halt to Iran’s nuclear program could allow opponents of such a deal to build momentum on Capitol Hill, analysts said Monday.
For a time last week, it seemed like the Obama administration was eager to complete such a pact in little more than 48 hours from the time officials disclosed that a serious short-term agreement was on the table. That would have allowed the administration to bring such a package to Congress as a done deal, with lawmakers in the position of having to upend an agreement that had the blessing of at least six major world powers.
However, a late snag in the talks — there was still some dispute Monday about who was responsible for the hitch — led the parties to recess, with plans to reconvene Nov. 20. And that delay is essentially forcing the administration into a more public and high-profile defense of more diplomacy with Iran, and the Senate to hold off on a vote on new sanctions against Tehran.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Monday to encourage the Senate to avoid any moves that might scuttle the next round of talks, said a source familiar with the conversation, first reported by BuzzFeed.
And Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to brief members of the Senate Banking Committee at a closed-door session later this week, a congressional source said. Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters returning from the Mideast with the secretary that the briefing will take place Wednesday, Reuters reported.
As top Obama administration officials urged the Senate to hold off any new sanctions action, some supporters of a deal with Iran fretted that the administration had waited until now to make a strong push in Congress and with the public for a pact aimed at halting Tehran’s nuclear program.
“I understand the attractiveness of that strategy, but am still doubtful about the wisdom and effectiveness of it, because it essentially means the president wanted to present Congress with a fait accompli, and this Congress doesn’t react very well to that,” said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.
Parsi said it was clear that the U.S. administration and others wanted to get an interim deal signed before the debate heated up in Congress again on sanctions.
“Part of the reason why the talks continued until 2 a.m. in the morning on what was in reality the fourth day when they were supposed to be two days is precisely because of the awareness on all sides, except for the French, that if they don’t get something now, it’s going to be more difficult,” Parsi said. “Before now, [a deal] had the momentum. That doesn’t mean it’s completely dead.”
Longtime arms control advocate Joe Cirincione said the delay leaves the administration with a more uphill battle, but not an impossible one.
“It puts the administration a little more on the defensive,” said Cirincione, now with the Ploughshares Fund. “All negotiators would prefer to make the deal in private, whether it’s labor-management or two countries or, in this case, seven countries…They’re now in awkward position of having to go over the individual parts of this deal and have it all second-guessed.”
Meanwhile, groups who have been vocal about the Iranian nuclear threat are clearly delighted with the additional time to urge Congress to get more involved, even as administration officials are warning senators not to upset the delicate negotiations.
“The result of Geneva is that Congress will now have an opportunity, which it must take, to speak up on what it views as the essential principles of an Iranian nuclear agreement,” said United Against Nuclear Iran’s Mark Wallace, a former U.S. representative at the U.N. under President George W. Bush.
“Senators will be demanding much more detail about the agreement than would have been the case had the administration snuck it across the goal line last week,” Josh Block of the Israel Project said. “Are they going to legitimize the Iranian right to enrich in this deal? That would be an unacceptable outcome.”
Capitol Hill will begin to turn the heat up on the issue no later than Wednesday morning, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing assessing the Iranian talks and the proposal for an interim deal. No Obama administration official is on the witness list, but Obama campaign adviser and former Pentagon official Colin Kahl is set to appear.