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Result trumps deadline in marathon Iran nuclear talks

Analysis: Talks continue because White House and Iran's leaders are too invested in an accord to easily accept failure

Opponents of a nuclear deal with Iran are already calling the deal over which negotiators continue to bargain in Lausanne the “April Fool’s Accord.” But the fact that diplomats from Iran and the five permanent members of the P5+1 group of world powers continued talking past their midnight March 31 deadline is a sign of their seriousness, rather than the reverse.

Russian and Iranian media reported early Wednesday Swiss time that an agreement had been reached and a statement would be released later in the day. A Western diplomat quickly contradicted those reports.

From the perspective of President Barack Obama’s administration, the object of the marathon talks in the Swiss lakeside city is a statement of principles, accompanied by a document with enough specifics on Iranian concessions to fend off harsh critics in the U.S. Congress.

At a minimum, Obama needs enough to once again convince Democrats to refrain from backing new sanctions legislation that could interfere with the executive branch’s flexibility in the negotiations, whose real deadline for a comprehensive deal is June 30. Obama has vowed to veto any such legislation, and Senate Republicans would need 13 Democrats to join them to override a presidential veto.

The administration is talking to members of Congress about ways in which they might modify proposed legislation in a manner that contributes to — rather than jeopardizes — an accord. The White House is also mobilizing potential “validators,” including former top foreign policy officials from both parties, to defend the outcome of the talks.

They face an uphill battle.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, told Al-Jazeera, “The mood [in Washington] has turned against a deal because proponents don’t know what they are defending, while opponents have been out there criticizing.”

During the past six days at a luxury hotel on Lake Geneva, negotiators have been trying to give proponents of a deal more ammunition. U.S. and European officials said Tuesday that considerable progress had been made, and that sticking points had narrowed to a crucial few.

“We’ve made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday,” State Department acting spokesperson Marie Harf emailed reporters. “There are several difficult issues still remaining.”

Sources at the talks say Iran has agreed to a deal that would last 15 years — three times what Tehran had initially said it would accept — with verification measures and safeguard obligations that would continue indefinitely.

The terms of the deal would close off all four potential pathways to creating fissile material for nuclear weapons — by capping the amount and purity of uranium enrichment at Natanz, banning it at the underground facility at Fordow, reconfiguring a heavy water reactor at Arak to minimize the potential for plutonium production and ramping up transparency to minimize potential for any covert weapons program.

The agreement is designed to ensure the international community would have at least a year’s warning of any breakout from Iran’s nonproliferation obligations — instead of the three months they have now. In return, the Iranians expect rapid relief from economic sanctions and, in particular, lifting of U.N. Security Council resolutions that provide the basis for those sanctions.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who returned to the talks on Tuesday after a 24-hour break, Iran is seeking a full cancellation of U.N. sanctions upfront, while the P5+1 is arguing for suspension and subsequent abolition of sanctions after Iran meets other requirements of the deal.

“But what in practice this must mean,” Lavrov told journalists, is “that the sanctions should no longer work and no longer hinder the development of legal trade and economic activity between Iran and its foreign partners.”

The P5+1 and Iran have accepted that there will be a new U.N. resolution that takes note of whatever agreement they reach and outlines procedures for sanctions relief. However, France and the U.S. have sought to phase in sanctions relief and include a “snapback” provision that would automatically restore economic penalties if Iran is caught cheating or fails to fully implement its obligations. Russia and China appear to have sided with Iran against such a provision, meaning that they would retain the power to veto re-imposition of U.N. sanctions.

Another sticking point is the amount of research and development on new centrifuges that Iran would be permitted to conduct in the latter years of the agreement. The deal is expected to restrict Iran to about 6,000 antiquated first-generation machines, known as P-1s or IR-1s, for at least a decade, and to reduce stockpiles of low-enriched uranium below an amount that could be further enriched to build a single nuclear weapon.

Iran’s delegation had not been enthusiastic about the March 31 deadline for a political framework, preferring to reveal the full parameters of an agreement in a single moment.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has compared the nuclear negotiations to the talks that ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, has made clear his preference for one agreement, not two. Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini compared accepting a cease-fire with Iraq to drinking poison, and Khamenei evidently would rather drain the chalice in one go rather than in doses.

However, the Iranian diplomats understand that Obama needs something concrete to fend off congressional critics as well as pressure from Israel and Gulf Arab powers. That may make fortuitous the timing of an interim agreement this week, falling during Congress’s Easter break, Iran's prolonged New Year celebrations and Israeli negotiations over forming a new coalition government.

Longtime observers of U.S.-Iran relations believe that both governments have invested so much political capital in these negotiations over the past 18 months that they cannot afford to allow them to fail. For Obama, an Iran nuclear agreement would be a crowning foreign policy achievement, while for Iranians, a deal would bring a welcome injection of oxygen to an economy choked by sanctions, low oil prices and government mismanagement.

“Both sides cannot afford defeat at this point,” Vali Nasr, a specialist on the region who is now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Al Jazeera.  “They will come out with a formula that says, ‘We made progress.’”

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