Obama administration officials who face the tough task of selling their nuclear deal with Iran to Americans are looking at a new challenge: how to avoid perceptions that the nearly-complete agreement will uncork a flood of arms to Tehran and militant allies such as Hezbollah.
The issue emerged this week after Iranian officials at nuclear negotiations in Vienna insisted that the United Nations Security Council should drop its bans on sales of conventional arms and missiles to Iran as part of the nuclear deal the country is negotiating with the U.S. and five other world powers.
U.S. officials say they don’t want more weapons flooding into a region in turmoil. They insist that the U.N. resolution that puts the emerging nuclear deal in place must include restrictions on arms sales.
However, hints suggest that some U.S. officials would prefer to find a compromise than let the dispute sink the nuclear deal, which now appears within reach. Officials on Tuesday missed a self-imposed deadline to complete the deal, and now hope to wrap up on Friday.
Diplomats seem split on immediate prospects for an agreement. Some predicted that a pact could still be completed by 6 a.m. Friday Vienna time, in time for the administration to meet a congressional deadline set for midnight EDT Thursday.
But others say big political issues and smaller technical ones must be resolved before the 80-page agreement and its annexes can be completed. A senior U.S. official said optimism about an immediate end of talks was not “grounded in reality.”
The United States and five other powers -- France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China -- have been negotiating with Iran for almost two years on a deal that would lift economic sanctions on Iran if it accepts restrictions intended to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Iranian officials believe that the arms embargoes should never have been included in U.N. sanctions on Iran in connection with its disputed nuclear activities. They want all the U.N. sanctions lifted, in part to show their public that the country is no longer an international pariah.
Russia and China also would like the weapons embargoes lifted because they want to sell arms to Iran. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week described the embargoes as the most important issue left to be negotiated.
The two sides may be groping toward a compromise, but it may be a tough one to reach.
Ali Vaez, an Iran specialist at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit non-governmental organization, said lifting the U.N. arms embargoes “amid sectarian-tainted turmoil in the region could not only exacerbate concerns among the Arab states and Israel, but even turn into a poison pill” that could sink the agreement.
He said he saw “no perfect middle-ground solution.”
One route that would meet Iranian goals but apparently not the Americans’ would make the U.N. restrictions voluntary. Another approach, which might not satisfy Iran, would delay a lifting of the embargoes until some later, arbitrary milestone is reached, Vaez said.
A senior administration official seemed to hint at U.S. flexibility this week. Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments, the official said the administration would insist on continued restrictions on arms sales, but declined to say if they would be as comprehensive as those now in place.
Analysts say another approach would be to drop the U.N. sanctions but use bilateral American sanctions to try to maintain an arms sales ban.
Diplomats have cited several other major issues still in dispute at the talks: the pace and structure of sanctions relief, the future of Iran’s nuclear research and development, monitoring of its nuclear activities, and unresolved questions about its suspected past nuclear weapons research.
Other questions also appear unanswered.
Iranian officials, for example, say they want a means of recourse in case the six world powers don’t live up to their end of the bargain. If Iran is seen to be violating its obligations, there will be a “snapback” of sanctions; Iran wants some mechanism in return to give it leverage, officials say.
Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council said one Iranian worry is that the White House will use administrative authority to temporarily lift U.S. sanctions on Iran but that Congress won’t follow through to permanently remove sanctions that were enacted into law.
Congress has a long history of not removing sanctions, such as those imposed on Russia, and many U.S. lawmakers oppose the Iran deal and might vote against sanctions repeal.