President Obama’s push to broker a deal with Iran over its nuclear program is rattling the international community and Capitol Hill, presenting the White House with its latest foreign policy challenge.
Secretary of State John Kerry's proposal to provide limited relief from sanctions if Iran made concessions on its nuclear program foundered after days of intense negotiations in Geneva.
The administration insists it will press ahead for an agreement when talks resume Nov. 20, but to secure an accord, Obama must sell detente not only to Iran but also skeptical U.S. allies and lawmakers urging him to hold out for a tougher deal.
It's a familiar — and uncomfortable — spot for Obama, who faced similar opposition in previous efforts to shift Mideast policy, notably over Egypt and Syria.
In talks with Iran, the P5+1 group — consisting of the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — seemed close to a deal.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted Kerry’s blueprint as “the deal of the century” for Iran, and the French also voiced deep concerns, calling the conditions placed on Tehran weak. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that Paris would not accept a “sucker's deal.”
Kerry downplayed any split among the world powers, saying Monday the P5+1 was “unified” and that Iran had scuttled the offer. His claims, though, were undercut after Tehran said it had cut a deal with the U.N. to give more access to international inspectors.
Lawmakers are also urging extreme caution, reminding the administration that it is dealing with a cunning adversary and the world's biggest supporter of anti-American terrorism. Both Democrats and Republicans insist on verifiable concessions from Tehran before sanctions are eased.
Obama’s eagerness for a diplomatic breakthrough could cost him precious political capital even as his domestic agenda is sidelined by the botched Obamacare rollout.
The White House launched a full-court press with both Obama and Vice President Biden calling senators and urging more time for diplomacy. Kerry was also forced to walk the gauntlet on Capitol Hill as he briefed senators about the talks.
Senate foreign relations committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he fears the U.S. is “dealing away our leverage” with Iran. His GOP colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called for imposing a new round of sanctions to squeeze Tehran even tighter.
Graham and other lawmakers are certain to use the delay before the next round of talks to stall any momentum for a deal.
The Obama administration, however, is pushing ahead in the opposite direction. The Daily Beast reported that the State Department began softening sanctions on Iran after the election of new president Hassan Rouhani in June, months before the current round of nuclear talks.
Some foreign policy experts say the administration is taking a risky stance by offering Iran a “carrot” before its leaders agree to concrete concessions. That approach could alienate lawmakers by undermining the tough sanctions strategy passed by Congress.
“I think that sanctions relief is something that is justifiable or logical to include in a spectrum of things done in the execution of a deal — but I don't think it is advisable ... to try to improve the atmosphere for negotiations themselves,” said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Dick Cheney who now runs DC International Advisory, a consulting firm.
Yates said the U.S. often offered early incentives in negotiations to states such as North Korea and Iran only to end up empty-handed.
“The atmosphere is temporarily improved and there's a lot of happy talk from all — but later you find the core problem hasn't been reversed,” he said.
Obama also risks causing a rift in the already-fragile P5+1 coalition.
In a blogpost, Brookings senior fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes, who favors a deal, wrote that the pace and format of talks make it difficult for the coalition to “remain united in ranking their preferences and honing their strategy toward Iran.”
She said the administration had little choice now but to press forward, but warned that if a breakthrough failed to materialize, the entire sanctions regime could be undermined.
“If unity amongst [the group] falters and one of these powers is seen by others as sabotaging a deal then the sanctions regime could start to crumble quickly,” she wrote.