Is a nuclear deal with Iran in sight?

Is a nuclear deal with Iran in sight?

Secretary of State Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and their respective teams sit together amid Iranian nuclear program negotiations in Austria. (Photo provided by U.S. Department of State)
Secretary of State Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and their respective teams sit together amid Iranian nuclear program negotiations in Austria. (Photo provided by U.S. Department of State)

Iran’s foreign minister returned to nuclear negotiations Tuesday morning, insisting he had a mandate to finalize a deal with world powers. But as the clock wound down on the self-imposed June 30 deadline, both sides stated that significant obstacles to a deal remained.

The State Department announced that talks have been extended to July 7.

“The P5+1 and Iran have decided to extend the measures under the Joint Plan of Action until July 7 to allow more time for negotiations to reach a long-term solution,” said Marie Harf, senior advisor for strategic communications at the State Department.

The timing of sanctions relief and the particulars of monitoring — the six world powers have said they have a system to ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency has the access it needs to verify Iran’s compliance — remain the focus of negotiators, according to reports from Vienna.

As of press time Tuesday, it remained unclear if Iran had agreed to the rigor of inspections the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany demanded. Complicating matters, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ratcheted up rhetoric leading up to the deadline, insisting that economic, financial and banking sanctions be lifted immediately with signing of a deal and ruling out the possibility of a 10- or 12-year freeze on sensitive nuclear work. He also ruled out the inspection of military sites.

On Tuesday morning, the Associated Press reported that the IAEA would officially confirm Wednesday that Iran has changed a “substantial amount” of enriched uranium into a form that would be difficult to use for nuclear weaponry. Doing so is a requirement of an earlier preliminary nuclear agreement.

Diplomats have indicated their willingness to stay and negotiate, but time is running out. Though June 30 increasingly became treated as a soft deadline, a deal must be presented to Congress by July 9. If the deal is submitted to Congress before the July deadline, it goes into a 30-day review period; after the deadline, that increases to a 60-day review period. During the review period no congressionally imposed sanctions will be lifted.

Should a deal be submitted on time, Congress would have to vote on its approval or disapproval before members leave town for the August recess.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the chief Iranian diplomat present at the talks, had left Vienna Sunday for Tehran for consultations and returned on deadline day with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, and Hossein Fereydoun, brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had met Saturday.

The State Department released a transcript Saturday of comments Kerry and Zarif made before heading into their talks about their optimism.

“We have some very tough issues and I think we all look forward to getting down to the final effort here to see whether or not a deal is possible,” said Kerry. “I think that everybody would like to see an agreement, but we have to work through some difficult issues.”

Said Zarif, “I agree maybe not on the issues, but on the fact that we need to work really hard in order to be able to make progress and move forward.”

Leading up to Tuesday’s passing deadline, pressure increased at home.

Former Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) sit on the board of directors for the American Security Initiative, which launched an ad blitz targeting eight senators from both sides of the aisle to oppose any deal that doesn’t permit “unconditional inspections” of Iran’s nuclear facilities. United Against Nuclear Iran put out its own 30-second video warning that “the concessions go too far.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s much circulated five-point memo outlining a good deal has proved influential on Congress. The organization wants “short notice” nuclear inspections “anytime and anywhere,” including of Iran’s military sites. It also wants lifting sanctions to be contingent on “ongoing verification” of Iranian compliance, a long-term moratorium on Iranian nuclear activity, complete dismantling of Iran’s existing nuclear infrastructure and an accounting by Iran of past nuclear weapons development.

“The AIPAC fact sheet is influential,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a think tank monitoring the talks. “It’s a nice, colorful, simple format — and AIPAC has tremendous reach.”

Congressional insiders say the AIPAC memo features prominently in conversations lawmakers from both parties are having with administration officials.

On June 24, 18 former government officials who have been meeting at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, among them former Obama officials Gary Samore, Dennis Ross and Robert Einhorn and former CIA director David Petraeus, signed their own open letter which outlined their five recommendations.

The signatories further called on the U.S. administration “to create a discreet, high-level mechanism with the Israeli government to identify and implement responses to [Israeli concerns].”

J Street, the liberal, self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, rolled out and populated it with videos meant to dispel what it considers the eight main myths against a framework agreement with Iran.

Melissa Apter writes for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at

JTA contributed to this story.