US President Barack Obama said that he and other world leaders have offered Iran an “extraordinarily reasonable deal” that will test whether the leadership of the Islamic nation is serious about at last resolving the dispute over its nuclear program.
Even as negotiators appear close to an agreement, Obama highlighted the challenge of what comes next: ensuring that any pact forged in Geneva can pass muster in Tehran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has expressed deep skepticism about a settlement with the outside world.
“We have made progress in narrowing the gaps, but those gaps still exist,” Obama said in an interview with CBS News that aired on Sunday on Face the Nation. “And I would say that over the next month or so, we’re going to be able to determine whether or not their system is able to accept what would be an extraordinarily reasonable deal, if in fact, as they say, they are only interested in peaceful nuclear programs.”
With a potential deal in sight, US Secretary of State John Kerry spent much of the past week consulting with allies and reassuring those nervous about the prospect. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress to warn that the terms as publicly reported would make it a “bad deal,” which would still leave Iran with a nuclear infrastructure that it could use to eventually make bombs.
Many Republicans and some Democrats share Netanyahu’s concerns and have been drafting legislation intended to give Congress a say in whether an agreement would be satisfactory. At the insistence of Democrats, Senate Republicans agreed to hold off advancing such legislation for a few more weeks.
On the same program on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, made clear that he intends to pursue the matter eventually.
“Obviously, the president doesn’t want us involved in this,” he said. “But he’s going to need us if he’s going to lift any of the existing sanctions. And so I think he cannot work around Congress forever.”
Negotiators from the US, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran have until later this month to develop the outline of a deal, under a preliminary agreement that has limited Iran’s nuclear program in the meantime. If they succeed, they will have until June to translate that into a detailed document.
The negotiators have been talking about an agreement that would limit Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium to the point that, in theory, it would take it a year to “break out” and create enough fuel for a bomb if it violated the terms, to be verified by international inspectors. In exchange, the world powers would ease the sanctions that have strangled Iran’s economy.
The deal would last at least 10 years but then expire.
Asked if a deal was imminent, Obama seemed to suggest it may be.
“I think it is fair to say that there is an urgency because we now have been negotiating for well over a year,” he said.
He said Iran must decide whether it is willing to open up in the way such an agreement would require.
“If we are able to verify that in fact they are not developing weapons systems, then there’s a deal to be had,” Obama said. “But that’s going to require them to accept the kind of verification and constraints on their program that so far, at least, they have not been willing to say yes to.”
Obama said he would not accept a bad deal.
“If there’s no deal, then we walk away,” he said.
Netanyahu on Sunday said that he opposed the deal as it seemed to be emerging, but acknowledged that in his speech to Congress he effectively backed off from his past insistence on leaving Iran with zero capacity to enrich uranium, even at lower grades for civilian fuel.
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