U.S. expects drafting of Iran final nuclear deal to begin in May

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Six world powers and Iran are on pace to start drafting the text of a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord in May, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by the July 20th expiration of the six month interim deal, a senior U.S. official said Friday ahead of the third round of final deal talks in Vienna next week.

“We have set out a work plan on how to proceed to get a comprehensive agreement…and we are on pace with that work plan and look to begin drafting in May,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a conference call briefing Friday.

“All of the parties are committed to finishing within the six-month [duration of the] Joint Plan of Action,” the official said. “I am absolutely convinced that we can.”

“So the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper,” the U.S. official said. “It’s about the choices Iran has to make, some very difficult, in order to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

“They will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices,” the official said. “But the drafting is certainly doable.”

There have been no additional US-Iran bilateral meetings outside of those that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran meetings in Vienna and been announced, another senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Friday.

As to whether it is accurate to detect that US officials are expressing more confidence about reaching a final deal, in particular in the six month time frame without needing an extension since comprehensive deal talks got underway, the second U.S. official affirmed that may be the case.

“I think you’re right to say increasing confidence since the talks started – everyone has kept their commitments in implementing the JPOA, we’re having substantive and detailed discussions about the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement,” the second senior U.S. official said.

But “we are still clear-eyed about how tough this will be,” the second U.S. official added. “The real question is if everyone is willing to make the tough choices this will require.”

The first two rounds of comprehensive deal P5+1/Iran talks to date, supplemented by intensive expert-level talks, have been used to “to go over every single [element of] a future agreement and to make sure we understand each others’ positions on those issues, both at the macro level and the technical level,” the first senior U.S. official said.

Even the early rounds of comprehensive deal talks focused on agenda setting and “laying the table” for drafting the comprehensive accord have been “quite substantive,” the official said.

“When you lay the table, you get down to…serious issues…and in those discussions, one begins to see areas of agreement and areas where [there are] still gaps that have to be overcome,” the official said.

The official spoke in the wake of the release of reports this week by the former top State Department Iran arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, and a Princeton nuclear expert team, that propose ways Iran could keep but modify key facilities in its nuclear program in a final deal, while reducing international proliferation concerns and extending its nuclear breakout time to between six months and a year. Iran has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a domestic enrichment program and that it would not dismantle key facilities, but has expressed willingness to make modifications to the Arak reactor.

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Obama tasks Congress with Syria vote: ‘We should have this debate’

As the world braced for imminent action, President Obama announced on Saturday that he had decided to seek Congressional approval before carrying out military action in Syria to punish and deter alleged chemical weapons use.

“After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama announced from the White House Rose Garden Saturday.

“But having made my decision..I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

The stunning decision, carried live by Syrian State television, was reportedly made by the president only on Friday evening, just hours after the White House released a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment laying out the evidence of the August 21 nerve gas attack, and Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a call for action.

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry said at the State Department Friday.

Indeed, most of Obama’s national security cabinet reportedly only learned of Obama’s reversal at a White House meeting Saturday morning, during which some of them were said to have argued against it. Among other reasons, because Congress is on recess until September 9th. But Obama stood firm, and as Kerry said on Sunday, he’s the president.

The White House on Saturday submitted a proposed draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria to Congress. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said he would convene the Senate to consider the authorization on Wednesday (Sept. 4). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), however, said he would not call the House back into session early from recess, and House members would consider the motion following their return September 9th.

President Obama reserved the right to act even if Congress votes against the measure– but he did not explicitly vow to do so.

“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, said. “We should have this debate.”

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