The news from U.S. negotiators who are trying to persuade Iran to accept binding limits on its nuclear technology was not good last week.
Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, still say they're willing to make a deal.
But the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insists that any agreement
must commit the United States and other countries to lift all economic sanctions from Iran immediately — and that's not going to happen.
And Khamenei has begun warning his countrymen to prepare themselves for a “resistance economy,” not the boom that an end to sanctions would bring.
“It's looking increasingly as if the Iranians can't get to yes,” one official told me last week. Last month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he thought a deal could be reached soon; he's less optimistic now, I'm told.
The negotiators are working against a March 24 deadline to conclude an agreement that would limit Iran's nuclear technology, impose tough international inspections and gradually lift economic sanctions in return.
Such a deal would be the Obama administration's biggest foreign policy achievement. But now some officials are focusing instead on a Plan B. If March 24 arrives and an agreement appears tantalizingly close, negotiators are likely to propose extending the talks for a few more days or weeks.
But what if Iran still can't get to yes under terms acceptable to the United States and its five diplomatic partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China?
At that point, the goal will be to keep restraining Iran from developing nuclear technology that can be used for weapons. That means maintaining — even strengthening — international economic sanctions.
As a first step, the United States and its allies will try to make sure Iran gets blamed for the talks' failure. Maintaining international sanctions, Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen told Congress last week, will depend mostly “on who our partners perceive is to blame.”
And there will undoubtedly be calls for increased sanctions — but again, that hinges on our diplomatic partners. “We're not the only ones who have a vote in this,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted.
But one more option appears increasingly likely: an extension of the current interim agreement with Iran, which limits Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for modest relief from economic sanctions.
Under the current version, Iran is gradually converting its enriched uranium to a form that can't be used for weapons. In return, it gets access to $700 million a month of its oil earnings, money that had been sequestered overseas.
That's a lot of money, but it's dwarfed by the estimated $130 billion in blocked funds that Iran could get if sanctions ended.
Now let's do something unusual: Applaud Congress for constructive inaction.
Last week, Sens. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) were gathering support for a bill with tough new automatic sanctions if Iran didn't agree to a deal. President Obama warned the bill would blow up the negotiations and allow other countries to blame the United States.
Menendez dismissed those warnings and said, outrageously, that Obama's position sounded “like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), was even more candid: “The end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of congressional action,” he said. “It is very much an intended consequence — a feature, not a bug.”
But in the face of the administration's warnings, Kirk and Menendez couldn't muster the 67 votes they would need to override Obama's promised veto. They didn't even have all 55 Republicans; Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) agreed with Obama.
So Kirk and Menendez postponed the bill until some time after March 24, when the outcome of negotiations should be clearer.
Meanwhile, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), pushed ahead with a more sensible proposal: a bill that would make a nuclear agreement — if one is reached — subject to review by Congress. Corker's measure, which has broad bipartisan support, might give Congress 90 days to reject a deal, or else it would go into force.
“We're very concerned … that maybe the administration wants a deal more than Iran does,” Corker told me. But he said postponing new sanctions legislation was a good idea, because it would have “caused the focus [of international concern] to be on the United States and not Iran.”
Intriguingly, Corker said he's willing to consider continuing the interim agreement with Iran if the talks fail.
“You could be better off with [the interim agreement] in place,” he said. “You walk away from
the table and everything falls apart,” including, potentially, the remaining international sanctions and limits on Iran's nuclear activities.
That doesn't add up to a bipartisan consensus on every piece of Plan B — not yet. But it's evidence that if the talks with Iran fail, the “interim” arrangement could last a while longer — an arrangement that offers one big advantage: It would allow both sides to live to negotiate another day.