White House to Democrats: We’ll seek extension to Iran nuclear talks

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
White House to Democrats: We’ll seek extension to Iran nuclear talks

President Barack Obama expects to seek an extension in Iran nuclear negotiations past the current Nov. 24 deadline for reaching a deal, White House aides told congressional Democrats on Friday.

Secretary of State John Kerry could float the idea as early as Friday night to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, White House officials disclosed in the briefing for Capitol Hill aides, which was held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.

There are “eons to go until Monday, but it’s going to be pretty difficult to get to a comprehensive agreement by Monday,” though “not impossible,” one Obama aide said.

So it’s a “reasonable expectation that we'll be requesting an extension,” the aide said. He did not specify a duration. The current talks resulted from a first extension that began July 20.

Kerry and representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia have been negotiating with Iranian diplomats including Zarif in Vienna. The United States and its partners want a deal that will ease fears that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran wants a lifting of crippling economic sanctions in return for concessions on its nuclear program, which it insists is entirely peaceful.

A potential final deal is expected to include inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities by officials from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the two sides are far apart on the issue of how much Iran could continue to enrich uranium — a process that makes it useful for energy purposes but can be ramped up to produce uranium suitable for weapons.

Iran says it plans to expand the number of its centrifuges, the machines used in enrichment. The United States and its partners say Tehran has no need to do so, pointing to an agreement under which Russia will provide nuclear fuel to Iran’s only nuclear power reactor at Bushehr until 2021.

Representatives from 10 congressional offices, including Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attended the briefing. Three Obama aides delivered the presentation. Yahoo News was provided details and quotes from someone who attended the briefing.

One major sticking point, the aides told congressional officials, has been that Iran says it wants all of the crippling sanctions “lifted right away” once a final deal is reached. The Obama administration has said it will suspend enforcement of the sanctions while it determines whether Iran is fully implementing any final deal.

That’s “non-negotiable,” one Obama aide told the congressional audience. There is “no circumstance” in which the president will accept a full lifting of sanctions on the first day.

The two sides have made “pretty positive progress” on other difficult issues, such as limits on Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear fuel, or how the international community would verify Tehran’s compliance, aides said. But the two sides remain apart.