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Iran Nuclear Agreement Delayed Again

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

VIENNA — Last-minute snags have delayed the conclusion of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers for at least one more day, diplomats here reported Monday.

Despite widespread predictions over the weekend that a landmark agreement would be announced Monday, officials said the two sides remained divided on several issues. Some said the final round could wrap up early Tuesday, though that would break a self-imposed midnight Monday deadline for the negotiations.

Iran and the six powers — the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — have spent almost two years seeking a deal that would lift sanctions on Iran if it accepts restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear bomb. The current round of talks has lasted 17 days.

The issues that remain in dispute, officials said, include details of the relief that Iran would receive from international economic sanctions; the wording of a United Nations Security Council resolution intended to put the deal in place; and Iran’s demand that, along with removing other sanctions, the U.N. should lift an embargo on its trade in missiles and conventional arms.

Diplomats also need to wrap up the writing of the documents that specify the terms of the agreement, which have now swelled to at least 100 pages. They also must agree on how they will present the controversial agreement to their domestic audiences.

Iranian state television said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would speak live to his country late Monday or early Tuesday if a deal is concluded.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian media Monday that the group would not strike another formal agreement to continue talks. But he said negotiations could continue without that step for “as long as necessary.”

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest expressed “confidence” that all sides would agree to keep an existing interim agreement in place for a few more days as the talks continue. That agreement was reached in November 2013 and set the ground rules for what Iran is allowed to do in its nuclear program during the course of negotiations.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, asked about the progress of talks during a photo opportunity, didn’t respond.

European officials said over the weekend that they believed the talks were near their end and that all the political choices were clear. But the talks ran over into Monday anyway and now may drag on at least a few more days.

The talks have been formally extended twice before in this round.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Emabassy in Vienna via Flickr

Iran Nuclear Negotiators Hint They May Announce Deal Soon

By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

VIENNA — Negotiators for Iran and six world powers labored through a new round of talks Thursday, amid hints that they may announce a comprehensive nuclear deal in the next day or two, if not later Thursday.

One day after President Barack Obama held an unusual videoconference with the U.S. team here to provide his guidance on final terms for a deal, the six powers met among themselves Thursday morning. U.S. and Iranian officials also met in separate sessions.

“Hopefully, today is the last day,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s nuclear organization, said at the beginning of a morning meeting with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Moniz said negotiators intended to solve the remaining issues, “if we can.”

Iran, the United States and the five other powers – France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – are seeking a deal that will ease sanctions on Iran if it accepts restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear bomb within 10 to 15 years.

Majid Takht-Ravanchi, a deputy Iranian foreign minister who has been key in the talks, was leaving Vienna for Tehran to attend his mother-in-law’s wake, but planned to return in less than 24 hours, an Iranian official said. The Russian and Chinese foreign ministers were abroad, but were said to be planning a return if a landmark deal is completed.

Negotiators have an incentive to finish by 5 a.m. Friday because that would enable them to meet a congressional deadline set for midnight Thursday Eastern Daylight Time.

If the deal is announced after that hour, Congress’ period for deliberating over the deal will expand from 30 to 60 days, slowing implementation and perhaps exposing the deal to new threats from congressional and other critics.

The negotiators may feel they have an incentive to complete the deal late at night, to dramatize how hard they have worked to protect their countries’ interests in the two-year-old process. In November 2013, negotiators completed a deal setting terms for negotiations just before dawn.

Yet it is unclear if Secretary of State John F. Kerry, still hobbling on crutches after breaking a leg May 31, would be eager to hurry across the city in the middle of the night to announce an agreement.

Some diplomats and others close to the talks predicted the deal would be unveiled early Friday.

If the deal is announced and the 80-page agreement and its annexes made public, the Obama administration will be under pressure to quickly make its case that the agreement is a smart way to resolve – if only temporarily – what Western officials consider one of the world’s most urgent security challenges.

Both sides have made substantial compromises to reach the agreement. Critics in Congress, Israel and the Arab world are likely to scrutinize the agreement’s dense technical language in search of additional concessions.

One key issue is how much access international inspectors will be given to look for cheating at Iranian sites. The ability to detect secret nuclear work is key, many experts say, because it is unlikely that Iran would try to cheat at the declared nuclear facilities that are under close scrutiny by United Nations inspectors.

Also likely to be scrutinized closely is the issue of how world powers will handle possible breaches of the rules by Iran. The U.S. and allies have been pushing for a mechanism that would make it hard for Iran and potential sympathizers, such as Russia and China, to block demands for special inspections to examine suspected violations.

But it is not clear how those debates have been resolved, or what punishments would be meted out in response to minor or major violations. Critics have predicted that the group will be reluctant to respond forcefully, for fear of sinking the deal.

Abbas Araqchi, a deputy Iranian foreign minister, said Thursday that Iran’s demand for a lifting of the U.N. embargo on arms and missile sales to Iran remains a major issue.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Thursday at a regional summit in Russia that his country would support a complete lifting of the embargoes, as sought by Iran.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Embassy Vienna via Flickr

Jeb Bush Says He’ll Have To Criticize His Brother, But Won’t Like It

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush acknowledged that running for president will require him to criticize his brother, former President George W. Bush, though it makes him uncomfortable.

“This is hard for me, to be honest with you,” Bush said in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation that was recorded Saturday and aired Sunday. “I have to do the Heisman on my brother, that I love. This is not something that I’m comfortable doing.”

Bush’s remark — conjoining the Heimlich maneuver with the college football Heisman Trophy — showed that he shares the family tendency toward malaprops that marked the public careers of his brother and father, former President George H.W. Bush. On a more substantive level, it showed the unease he has already demonstrated on the campaign trail with how to handle his brother’s legacy.

In the interview, Bush criticized his brother for allowing federal spending to balloon during his time in the White House, a part of the Bush record that conservatives in the Republican Party have often denounced. But he suggested that other Republicans shared the blame.

Because of President Bush’s focus on counterterrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, “I think he let the Republican Congress get a little out of control, in terms of the spending,” Jeb Bush said.

He said his brother deserved credit for “protecting the homeland” after the terrorist attacks.

Jeb Bush has not yet announced that he is running for president, although he has been campaigning and raising money for months. Avoiding an announcement for now has allowed him to sidestep campaign finance restrictions.

But with candidate debates set to start in August, Bush said he would decide after a trip next week to Germany, Poland and Estonia.

“After that, I’ll have to make up my mind,” he said.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush looks on prior to speaking at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, DC, November 20, 2014 (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Marathon Talks Produce Broad Outline Of A Nuclear Deal With Iran, Officials Say

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Marathon talks have produced the “key parameters” of a historic nuclear deal with Iran, officials said Thursday.

Officials said Iran agreed to a series of steps to sharply lower the threat that it could produce enough enriched uranium, or produce plutonium, as fuel for nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, would have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities in a regime of intense monitoring and inspections.

Most U.S. related sanctions would remain for the duration of the deal, but United Nations sanctions would be lifted more quickly if it complies with its obligations.

President Barack Obama, speaking in the Rose Garden, hailed what he called a “historic understanding with Iran” that if fully implemented, “will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“It is a good deal, a deal that meets our core objectives,” Obama said.

Obama said that even if Iran cheats, the arrangement extends the time it would need to develop a bomb from two or three months to at least a year, giving the outside world time to intervene.

“This deal is not based on trust,” Obama said. “It’s based on unprecedented verification.”

The preliminary accord, the officials said, sets the stage for an additional three months of international diplomacy aimed at a forging an agreement to ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its ability to build a nuclear weapon.

The officials made the announcement after an all-night negotiating session and eight days of intense talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, between Iran and six world powers.

Earlier in the day, as talks between Iran and six world powers entered their eighth straight day, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the diplomats had narrowed their differences in overnight wrangling between Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the Iranian team and European officials.

In a potentially positive sign, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius returned to this lakeside city late Wednesday, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier canceled a trip to the Baltic region that had been delayed to remain at the negotiations. If there is an announcement of a deal Thursday, at least some of the foreign ministers would want to be present.

The diplomats are seeking a preliminary outline of a deal that would ease sanctions on Iran if it accepts restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. If they complete the first-stage agreement here, they hope to fill in all details of a comprehensive deal by June 30.

“We are moving,” Zarif declared earlier Thursday, as he emerged from long hours of talks just before 6 a.m.

Marie Harf, Kerry’s spokeswoman, said on Twitter that the session was “truly an all-nighter.” After more than eight hours of talks, the diplomats broke for about three hours of sleep, then resumed their meetings.

Diplomats cautioned that the talks, which have veered between optimism and gloom all week, could again stall. The negotiations have been slowed by differences between the six powers and Iran, and differences among the world powers.

Fabius, returning from Paris on Wednesday night, said negotiators remained “a few yards” from the finish line.

The Obama administration is under enormous pressure to demonstrate progress in the 18-month-old talks before Congress returns April 14 from a break. Skeptical lawmakers say that unless they see proof of progress, they will seek votes on two measures the administration believes could sink the talks.

Kerry still has two weeks to nail down the preliminary deal. But it may be easier to try to solve differences now than to try to bring diplomats back to Switzerland next week.

The White House, in an acknowledgment that the talks were skirting the edge of collapse, said Wednesday that Obama was prepared to take a new approach if progress was not possible.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said that while U.S. officials still see signs of progress, “if we are in a situation where we sense that the talks have stalled, then…the U.S. and the international community is prepared to walk away.”

But for the administration, the challenge is not just to get an agreement, but to reach one that demonstrates that the two sides are resolving the big issues that stand between them.

Administration officials have promised that they would explain to the public the decisions they have made. Earnest has said U.S. officials would describe how they intend to deal with dangers presented by the major Iranian nuclear sites.

But it appears likely that key issues, such as the handling of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, will remain unresolved as the negotiations enter their final months.

Some analysts — including former members of Obama’s team — have said they are concerned that the deal could be less than advertised. That would further complicate the administration’s struggle to sell the deal to Congress and allies, when it is already under fire from critics.

Kerry is fabled for his dogged approach to diplomacy. During his last attempt to work out a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Israeli officials joked ruefully about Kerry’s habit of showing up and simply waiting in hopes of wearing down the other side.

This may not be an auspicious week for a deal. A deal signed Wednesday might have been derided as the April Fool’s agreement. And Thursday is the 13th day of the Iranian new year, Zeizdah Bedar, considered an unlucky day for Iranians.

Photo: Olivier Douliery via TNS

Iran Talks Grind Into Overtime As Top Diplomats Leave

By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

International talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program moved into wearying overtime Wednesday, with their future unclear and a shrinking corps of top diplomats taking part.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other negotiators, who are seeking a preliminary deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions, failed to meet a self-imposed deadline at midnight Tuesday but kept going in search of a breakthrough.

Diplomats insist the closed-door talks are making progress, and could produce an acceptable outcome at any time that would kick the negotiations into their final phase.

Yet major conflicts remain and much work is needed, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters.

Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have already left Lausanne, leaving aides to negotiate for them.

One possibility is the talks will break up in the next day or so with only a general press statement, then resume after a few days to try to work out a detailed agreement that can help the Obama administration convince skeptics in Congress that it is making progress.

But a halt without a deal would be a setback for the White House, which is concerned that Congress will impose new sanctions that could wreck the talks when it returns April 13.

The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, France, Britain, Russia, and China — plus Germany have spent the last 18 months in intense talks with Iran in an effort to curb its nuclear program. Talks began more than a decade ago.

The diplomats missed two deadlines last year, and President Obama told them he wanted a definitive decision by Tuesday on whether an agreement with Iran was possible.

But the talks hit an impasse on several key issues, including the lifting of U.N. sanctions on Iran, and restraints on Iran’s research and development that could help it modernize its ability to enrich uranium. Iran denies it is seeking to build nuclear weapons.

The talks have careened from optimism to pessimism and back over the last week. Diplomats said Tuesday morning that a deal was in sight, and the delegations had prepared large meeting halls to announce a deal, and some in the U.S. party had packed their bags to go home.

But the discussions seemed to run aground Tuesday afternoon. “The mood changed hour to hour,” said one diplomat.

A senior U.S. official said in a statement before six p.m that American negotiators were “evaluating the best path forward.”

“It’s time for Iran to make the serious commitments that they know the international community is expecting them to make,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in Washington.

Without those pledges from Iran, the U.S. and its five negotiating partners will have to consider “other alternatives,” Earnest said.

Obama and his top aides held a late night secure video conference call with Kerry and his negotiating team and “thanked the team for their continuing efforts,” the White House announced.

Photo: U.S. Embassy Vienna via Flickr

Negotiations On Iran’s Nuclear Program Seem Headed Toward Overtime

By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The U.S. and five other world powers prepared Tuesday to announce a preliminary agreement that would enable them to continue negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program for the next three months, though with many key issues unresolved.

In six days of intense high-level talks, the group was able to avoid a breakdown that would have imperiled an 18-month effort to reach a deal curbing Iran’s nuclear activities. But the group has not reached agreement on some key issues.

Top diplomats are expected to make an announcement later Tuesday outlining the progress so far and a plan to meet a June 30 deadline for completing a final, detailed agreement.

U.S. officials denied that an agreement had been reached. But other officials said an announcement would be likely Tuesday afternoon or evening at a university in Lausanne.

Whether the progress so far, and an agreement to keep talking, would be enough to convince Congress and skeptical U.S. allies in the Middle East that the talks are worthwhile will be a major question over the next several weeks.

As Tuesday night’s deadline for the current round of talks neared, diplomats began making plans. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Moscow before returning to Switzerland for the expected announcement, said chances of an agreement were “high.”

The negotiations here seek a deal that would ease sanctions on Iran if it accepts, for ten to fifteen years, restrictions on its nuclear program.

The stakes are high. A deal could reduce the chances of war, ease Iran’s international isolation, and, over time, possibly transform America’s relationship with a longtime adversary. Critics say a bad deal would pave the way to an Iranian bomb and give Tehran a financial boost that could strengthen its efforts to expand its regional influence.

Foreign ministers from Iran, the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China have struggled with a series of tough issues this week, notably what restrictions will remain on Iran’s research and development, and how quickly United Nations sanctions will be lifted.

Iranian officials maintained a tough stance as the deadline approached, in what some outside analysts said appeared to be an effort to create a last-minute crisis that would enable them to extract concessions.

U.S. officials have said that if they reached a “framework” deal they would release detailed information to Congress and provide more general information to the public to explain how they have resolved the major political issues involved in the talks.

But to the extent the agreement so far lacks detail, the deal-making is likely to come under attack by the critics.

“It could be very tricky for [Secretary of State John] Kerry,” said Gary Samore, a former top White House aide who is research director at the the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The administration’s supporters have been urging them to release as many details as possible to strengthen what appears to be an uphill effort to defend the deal.

On Monday officials said the negotiators had set aside for the future one major issue: how to deal with Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Many private nuclear experts believed the diplomatic group had sealed an agreement with Iran that would have sent much of Iran’s enriched uranium to Russia to assure that it couldn’t be further enriched to make bomb fuel.

But diplomats acknowledged that in fact Iran was not committed to such an approach and that the issue was unresolved.

Photo: U.S. Embassy Vienna via Flickr

Iran Nuclear Talks Expected To Last Right Up To Deadline

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are expected to continue right up until their Tuesday night deadline, with Iran and six world powers still divided on a variety of issues despite marathon meetings between their foreign ministers, officials said Sunday.

While the negotiators are close to agreement on some difficult issues, they remain at odds on the pace for lifting United Nations sanctions on Iran, and the easing of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear research and development in the last five years of the expected 10- to 15-year deal, a senior U.S. official said. Other issues, too, remain unresolved, said the official, who declined to be identified under ground rules often invoked by the administration.

Critics of the deal, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, renewed their concerns, while a former top administration intelligence official said the deal would be “dangerous” and that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy is one of “willful ignorance.”

“One of the things that we have to keep in mind … is Iran is also a country with ballistic missiles, cyber capabilities. They are also still a state sponsor of terrorism,” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said on Fox News Sunday.

Flynn, who retired last summer as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, added: “And here we are dealing with them as though we’re going to give them a carte blanche. … I mean, give me a break.”

Iran and the six world powers are seeking a deal that would ease sanctions on Tehran if it agrees to accept restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The diplomats are aiming to complete a preliminary agreement, resolving all the major political decisions, by the end of the month. Then they would thrash out the details of a comprehensive deal by June 30.

The foreign ministers of all seven countries arrived at a five-star hotel in this lakeside city by Sunday night, with most committed to staying until the deal is done. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have all canceled plans to leave early in the week.

Early Sunday, Kerry announced that he would not attend Monday’s dedication in Boston of an institute honoring the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who served in the Senate with Kerry for 25 years.

Iran has been pressing hard to be allowed to step up research and development in the final years of the agreement so it can quickly ramp up enrichment to industrial levels.

The diplomatic bloc — which includes France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — is also resisting Iran’s demand that all United Nations sanctions be dropped at the beginning of the deal. The senior U.S. official said the American team remains committed to having the U.N. sanctions lifted gradually, as Iran complies with the requirements of the deal.

The U.S. official said the Obama administration plans to resolve all the major political issues in the agreement, and intends to explain those decisions to the public. Congress will be briefed privately, in detail.

But the administration faces a quandary because Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is insisting that there can be no written agreement until a final one is issued at the end of June. The issue is difficult for the administration because it needs to build support for the diplomacy, which critics contend has given away too much to the Iranians.

The Iranians are in agreement with the Obama administration on provisions for aggressive monitoring and inspections of their nuclear program, the U.S. official said. Those provisions, which are to last indefinitely, are central to the effort to prevent an Iranian bomb, in the U.S. view.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the prospects were even worse than he had feared.

“This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet in Jerusalem.

The senior U.S. official recalled that Obama’s instructions last year were for the diplomats to determine by the end of March if it would be possible to reach an agreement. It is not clear that the two sides will be able to reach a deal, the official said.

In Washington, Saudi Ambassador Adel Jubeir expressed hope that a deal would be reached that would ensure regional stability.

Jubeir said Saudi Arabia wants to see a deal that denies Iran the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. His comments came as Saudi Arabian warplanes struck Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen for the fourth straight day.

“I believe that the negotiations with regards to a nuclear program in Iran are something that the whole world wants to succeed,” he said during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We’re waiting to see the results of the negotiations before we assess the deal.”
___
Staff writer William Hennigan in Washington and special correspondents Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

Photo: U.S. Emabassy in Vienna via Flickr

Iranian President Sends Letter To Obama As Nuclear Talks Near Deadline

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote a letter Thursday to President Barack Obama and leaders of the other five countries engaged in talks aimed at a nuclear deal, urging them to overcome differences so that an agreement can be reached by the end of the month.

Rouhani, who didn’t disclose the full contents of the letter, also raised the Saudi Arabian air attacks on Iranian-supported rebels in Yemen, an action Iran has strongly criticized. He said on Twitter that he had condemned the attacks, contending they are only “exacerbating the crisis” in a country fighting a many-sided civil war.

But Rouhani did not suggest that dispute would stand in the way of a nuclear deal, making clear, instead, that he believes the talks can reach a deal that would remove sanctions on Iran’s economy if it accepts curbs aimed at preventing it from gaining nuclear weapons capability.

The negotiators are seeking to reach the outline of a deal by Tuesday and to complete a detailed, comprehensive agreement by June 30.

Rouhani also spoke by phone with French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rouhani hinted on Twitter that France and Britain had been pressuring Iran for concessions. He said he made the point to them that France and Britain should be “preparing for future cooperation” rather than “resorting to pressure and opposition.”

Rouhani pressed Iran’s top talking point, which is that it will only accept a deal if the six countries on the other side of the table — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China — agree to quickly drop sanctions.

“Lifting all unjust #sanctions main step to reach a deal,” he wrote on Twitter.

A spokeswoman for Cameron said the prime minister had told Rouhani that Iran “needs to recognize that there are concerns held by the wider international community about whether Iran’s nuclear program is being developed for peaceful purposes.”

The White House declined to comment on the contents of Rouhani’s letter but did not dispute his account.

The letter came as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resumed negotiations Thursday morning.

U.S. officials said last week’s five-day negotiating session, which ended Saturday for a three-day break, had made more progress than any previous round. They said they view March 31 as a firm deadline for the first-phase agreement they are seeking to reach.

“We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st,” a senior administration official told reporters on Kerry’s plane Wednesday night. “We see a path to do that.”

At the same time, the official acknowledged that the talks, which missed two deadlines last year, could stall again.

Though negotiators have tentatively resolved a series of thorny issues, U.S. officials indicated that a key question — how long the deal should last — has not been finally settled. An official, who declined to be identified under ground rules set by the State Department, said conversations on the subject are “ongoing.”

“All of us want as long a duration as is possible,” the official said. “The question is what is realistic — what (restrictions) should be in place for what length of time.”

Officials have said that restrictions on Iran would begin to be eased after a number of years. But some curbs, as well as close monitoring and inspections, would continue indefinitely, U.S. officials have promised.

Officials suggested that Thursday’s meeting could be crucial, because they are waiting to see if the Iranian leadership, during consultations with Zarif over the weekend, accepted the six powers’ proposals for resolving other outstanding issues.

After this meeting, “we will have a much better sense of where Iran is,” the official said.

The officials promised that the first-stage agreement — sometimes referred to as a “framework” or “political understanding” — would include enough details to allow the public to judge its value.

It has been unclear how specific the agreement would be. Iran wants no written document issued until the entire deal is complete, while Congress is demanding a detailed understanding of how the negotiators intend to resolve all important issues.

Advocates for the deal in the United States have been urging the White House to release as many details as possible so that supporters can defend it against critics in Congress and elsewhere.

“We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible to the public in some form or fashion,” an official said.

Obama this week promised that the public would be able to “lift up the hood” to see what’s in the agreement.

The officials said it was still unresolved whether the agreement would be described in a written statement, public remarks or both.

The officials said the interim nuclear agreement of November 2013, which temporarily restricts Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, would remain in effect if the group doesn’t meet the March 31 deadline. However, they said the administration would “evaluate” what course it would take next if negotiators fell short again, for the third time.

The deadline issue is sensitive for the administration because it is under pressure to show concrete progress or face congressional action that the administration fears could sink the negotiations. The administration could theoretically continue talking until mid-April, because Congress doesn’t return from a two-week recess until April 11.

French officials have been urging the group not to worry about the March 31 deadline, because setting a date in that way gives Iran added negotiating leverage. A senior U.S. official said the six powers were united on overall strategy, though there are tactical differences between them.

A U.S. official described the plans for the talks as “incredibly fluid.” The U.S. negotiators’ schedule has no details for the next week, but says only “negotiations.”

Kerry, addressing the deal’s critics in remarks in Washington on Wednesday, warned that if the United States abandoned a deal that other world powers consider reasonable, the sanctions regime would collapse, and the Iranian nuclear threat would sharpen.

“The talks would collapse,” he said. “Iran would have the ability to go right back to spinning its centrifuges and enriching (uranium) to the degree they want.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva on January 14 for a bilateral meeting to provide guidance to their negotiating teams before their next round of discussions, which begin on January 15. U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers via Flickr

U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks Resume As Deadline Nears

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resumed negotiations Thursday morning, hoping to continue accelerating progress toward a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

U.S. officials said last week’s five-day negotiating session, which ended Saturday for a three-day break, had made more progress than any previous round. They said they view March 31 as a firm deadline for the first-phase agreement they are seeking to reach.

The United States, five other world powers, and Iran are hoping to complete a final deal, with all details worked out by June 30. It would lift sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic agrees to curbs intended to prevent it from gaining a nuclear weapons capability.

“We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st,” a senior administration official told reporters on Kerry’s plane Wednesday night. “We see a path to do that.”

At the same time, the official acknowledged that the talks, which missed two deadlines last year, could stall again.

Though negotiators have tentatively resolved a series of thorny issues, U.S. officials indicated that the key question of how long the deal should last has not been finally settled. An official, who declined to be identified under ground rules set by the State Department, said conversations on the subject are “ongoing.”

“All of us want as long a duration as is possible,” the official said. “The question is what is realistic — what (restrictions) should be in place for what length of time.”

Officials have said that restrictions on Iran would begin to be eased after a number of years. But some curbs, as well as close monitoring and inspections, would continue indefinitely, U.S. officials have promised.

Officials suggested that Thursday’s meeting could be crucial, because they are waiting to see if the Iranian leadership, during consultations with Zarif over the weekend, accepted the six powers’ proposals for resolving other outstanding issues.

After this meeting “we will have a much better sense of where Iran is,” the official said.

The officials promised that the first-stage agreement — sometimes referred to as a “framework” or “political understanding” — would include enough details to allow the public to judge its value.

It has been unclear how specific the agreement would be. Iran wants no written document issued until the entire deal is complete, while Congress is demanding a detailed understanding of how the negotiators intend to resolve all important issues.

Advocates for the deal in the United States have been urging the White House to release as many details as possible so that supporters can defend it against critics in Congress and elsewhere.

“We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible to the public in some form or fashion,” an official said.

President Barack Obama this week promised that the public would be able to “lift up the hood” to see what’s in the agreement.

The officials said it was still unresolved whether the agreement would be described in a written statement, public remarks or both.

The officials said the interim nuclear agreement of November 2013, which temporarily restricts Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, would remain in effect if the group doesn’t meet the March 31 deadline. However, they said the administration would “evaluate” what course it would take next if negotiators fell short again, for the third time.

The deadline issue is sensitive for the administration because it is under pressure to show concrete progress or face congressional action that the administration fears could sink the negotiations. The administration could theoretically continue talking until mid-April, because Congress doesn’t return until April 11.

French officials have been urging the group not to worry about the March 31 deadline, because setting a date in that way gives Iran added negotiating leverage. A senior U.S. official said the six powers were united on overall strategy, though there are tactical differences between them.

A U.S. official described the plans for the talks as “incredibly fluid.” The U.S. negotiators’ schedule has no details for the next week, but says only “negotiations.”

Kerry, addressing the deal’s critics in remarks in Washington on Wednesday, warned that if the United States abandoned a deal that other world powers consider reasonable, the sanctions regime would collapse and the Iranian nuclear threat would sharpen.

“The talks would collapse,” he said. “Iran would have the ability to go right back spinning its centrifuges and enriching (uranium) to the degree they want.”

One potential threat to the talks emerged in the air attack Wednesday by Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The White House has announced that the United States will provide logistical and intelligence support to the Gulf Arabs’ effort.

Alaedin Brojerdi, head of the foreign policy committee in Iran’s parliament, charged that “America is leading the … war in the region.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva on January 14 for a bilateral meeting to provide guidance to their negotiating teams before their next round of discussions, which begin on January 15. U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers via Flickr

Major Issues In Iran Talks Remain Unsettled, Diplomats Say

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — With a deadline only days away, negotiators seeking a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program continue to debate the most important issues and haven’t begun circulating a draft agreement, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

As the current round of negotiations entered a fifth day, officials from Iran and the six world powers engaged in the talks said the schedule for the meetings remained unclear.

On both sides, senior Iranian and Western officials struck a cautious tone on the outlook for the talks, which are aimed at completing the outline of a deal by March 31 and the final terms by July.

“We are pushing tough issues. But we made progress,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.

A senior European official, however, said his government was unhappy with the terms now on the table and would object to the deal in its present form.

And Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said the group was “still a distance” from the deal.

“We still need to do a lot of work,” he told reporters.

The United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China have been negotiating for 18 months to put together a deal that would ease sanctions on Iran’s economy if it agrees to restrictions aimed at preventing it from gaining nuclear weapons capability.

The negotiators have alternated between gloomy and optimistic predictions. Only two days ago, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s nuclear program, said he was “very optimistic” that the group was on the verge of completing the outline of a deal.

The State Department, seeking to deflect speculation that key details have been settled, said in a statement that “the fundamental framework issues are still under comprehensive discussion; there is no draft document being circulated.”

The negotiators are believed to be closing in on a deal of ten to 15 years’ duration that would allow Iran to keep 6,000 to 8,000 centrifuges out of its current inventory of about 19,000. The deal would also cap the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to try to ensure that Tehran couldn’t accumulate enough high-grade uranium for one bomb within a year’s time.

While the Europeans and Zarif are sounding gloomy, “it could be posturing,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Many people close to the talks contend that while many points are still in dispute, the group is close enough that it could come to an agreement within days. The current quest for the outline of an agreement means that not all of the complex details need to be resolved.

The most important outstanding issues are the schedule under which major powers would lift sanctions and what restrictions would be placed on Iran’s research and development during the course of a deal, diplomats said.

But to settle those two issues, the group might adjust the terms of their agreement on other matters that have been debated, diplomats say.

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry continued his meetings in Montreux March 4 with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in the meetings. (US Mission Geneva via Flickr)

U.S.-Israeli Relations, Already Tense, Face New Tests With Netanyahu Victory

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSSANE, Switzerland — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Tuesday’s Israeli elections leaves the vital relationship with the United States under strain as at few times in the country’s history.

Netanyahu made opposition to U.S. negotiations with Iran a centerpiece of his reelection effort. Then, in the closing days of the campaign, he went further, repudiating the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state, which has been a key element of U.S. policy under both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Now, Obama administration officials, who have been increasingly open in their distaste for Netanyahu, face the likelihood of having to deal with him for the remainder of the president’s tenure.

Whether the two governments can find a way to step back from an increasingly angry conflict — or even want to — will start to become apparent as Netanyahu negotiates to form a new governing coalition and U.S. officials decide how to respond to him.

For now, U.S. officials are working to play down the conflict.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said before the votes were counted that Obama “remains committed to working” with the Israeli government and “whomever the Israeli people choose.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Netanyahu’s repudiation of the two-state solution may have been only campaign bluster.

“A lot of things are said during election campaigns,” Psaki said. “We’ll wait to see the policies of the new government.”

Supporters of Netanyahu emphasized that the prime minister’s record has been more pragmatic than his campaign rhetoric.

But privately, officials said the battles of recent weeks will unquestionably damage the two countries’ ties on security issues.

Israel has often brought its influence to bear quietly, in private conversations with top U.S. officials about security threats. Israeli officials could get to U.S. policy makers early, using assessments from their intelligence agencies to help steer American decisions.

Some of that trust and access will now be lost, former U.S. officials said.

Informal contacts have “been one of the most effective ways Israel has gotten what it wants,” one former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss relations with a key ally. “It won’t be the same.”

Already, in recent weeks, U.S. officials announced publicly that they were limiting how much information on the nuclear negotiations with Iran they shared with Israel. Netanyahu’s government was using the data to denounce the American bargaining position in the talks, they said, accusing the Israelis of selective and misleading leaks that were impeding the negotiations.

Some analysts worry that the White House may now part ways with Israel on some issues before the United Nations and other international bodies.

Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that last year, U.S. officials appeared more ready to separate themselves from Israel’s position at the United Nations. American support “was not automatic,” he said.

Martin Indyk, who led the administration’s last effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, said recently that if the new Israeli government didn’t resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the Obama administration might join the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in adopting a resolution laying out key principles for a peace settlement.

Such a move would be jarring to Israel, which has counted on American defense at the UN and doesn’t want international bodies intervening in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israel may need American diplomatic support now more than ever. European governments are increasingly impatient with Israel over what they see as the Netanyahu government’s continuing efforts to expand illegal Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

The two countries are also likely to collide in the next few months if negotiators from the U.S. and five other major powers reach an agreement with Iran to set limits on its nuclear program.

Netanyahu made clear in his speech to Congress earlier this month that he would oppose any likely agreement, and he may use Israeli intelligence estimates to challenge the U.S. assessment of how a deal would prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout.

At the same time, most of America’s support for Israel has strong bipartisan support, which is not likely to change. The United States provides Israel $3.1 billion in military aid, vital intelligence support and works to assure that Israel has better military gear than any of its regional adversaries.

The Obama administration will also continue to defend Israel diplomatically, as it has even during the recent weeks of strife, officials have emphasized.

On March 3, Secretary of State John Kerry defended Israel against criticism from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, calling the panel’s objections to Israeli actions an “obsession.”

Some Netanyahu allies are predicting that the new government and the United States will cooperate to some extent in trying to stabilize the conflict with the Palestinians at a moment when the Palestinian Authority is near collapse.

But that doesn’t mean that Netanyahu is ready to embrace any new peace-making initiative, such as the one that Kerry had promised to begin once the elections were over.

Netanyahu is likely to approve continued expansion of Jewish settlements, which he promised conservative supporters during the campaign. That would put him directly at odds with the administration.

And despite Psaki’s words, it is hard to imagine that memories of Netanyahu’s campaign statements won’t linger with Obama administration officials.

When Netanyahu’s Likud party declared March 8 that the prime minister had spent his whole life fighting to prevent creation of a Palestinian state, Indyk tweeted: “Does that mean he was pulling our leg?”

Photo: President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. (Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons)

Iran Nuclear Talks Still Far From A Deal, Officials Say

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Hopes are fading that the outline of a landmark deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program will be completed this week, as western officials emphasize a long list of obstacles that continue to block progress.

Sunday, as negotiators for the United States and Iran gathered here, some diplomats and observers had predicted that the outline of a deal could be announced by Friday. But in briefings Tuesday, officials struck a more pessimistic tone about the talks, which involve Iran, the United States and five other world powers.

“We still have a way to go,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We still have some tough technical issues to address.”

The two sides appear divided over how quickly sanctions against Iran’s economy would be lifted in exchange for Iran’s agreeing to restrictions on its nuclear program. The also differ on how tightly to limit Iran’s future research and development activities and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Other issues may be lurking, too. The Iranians have insisted that they want to continue to use their underground nuclear enrichment site at Fordo, even though the two sides appeared to have agreed last summer that the site, which is built to resist against air strikes, would be used exclusively for research.

The unresolved issues suggest the group, which has been negotiating steadily since October 2013, will need almost all the time available before their deadline at the end of this month. The negotiators are aiming to reach the broad outline of a deal by March 31 and to complete all the details of a comprehensive agreement by June 30.

European officials were similarly cautious in their predictions after meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday afternoon.

There remains “a long way to go if we are going to get there,” Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said after that meeting.

The Obama administration is under growing pressure from a skeptical Congress, which has been threatening legislation that the White House warns could sink the talks.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday he hopes to begin committee consideration next week of a bill that would enable Congress to take an up or down vote on the agreement. Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, warned Corker in a letter last weekend that action on that bill would “potentially prevent any deal from succeeding.”

Negotiators seem likely to leave Lausanne on Friday to enable the Iranian delegation to return to Tehran in time to celebrate the country’s new year holiday, a major event in Iran. The top U.S. and Iranian diplomats aren’t likely to return to the talks before March 25, in part because of Secretary of State John Kerry’s obligations in Washington.

Photo: U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers via Flickr

GOP Letter Complicates Nuclear Talks With Tehran

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A defiant letter from Senate Republicans to Iran’s leaders has added a new complication to the fraught international negotiations seeking to end the decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

As U.S. and Iranian officials began a weeklong push to complete at least the outline of a deal, Tehran repeatedly demanded an explanation of the letter written last week by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and signed by 47 of the 54 Republican senators, a senior Obama administration official said.

The open letter warns Iranian leaders that Congress can block a nuclear pact that the administration negotiates if lawmakers consider it too lenient, and that an agreement could effectively expire once President Barack Obama leaves office.

The administration official said Iranian officials raised the letter in a negotiating session on Sunday, and again on Monday, as the two sides sat through five hours of talks in a luxury hotel on the edge of Lake Geneva.

“These kinds of distractions are not helpful when we’re talking about something so serious,” said the senior administration official, who declined to be identified under ground rules set by the administration. “It was of concern. … It is an issue.”

The official declined to describe how U.S. officials responded or to provide other details of the discussions. The official said the contentious issue didn’t stop the two sides from trying to resolve other differences still on the table.

Senior diplomats and technical experts met on Sunday. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were scheduled to meet Monday.

The GOP letter has further inflamed an already passionate debate in Washington over leaked details of the expected framework agreement, which negotiators hope to finish this week if possible.

White House officials have sharply criticized the lawmakers’ letter as an unprecedented interference in the president’s prerogative to negotiate agreements and conduct foreign policy.

But others, including Cotton, insist that the warning was justified if it helps prevent a deal that could open the way for Iran to someday build a nuclear weapon.

Appearing on CNN on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the letter, accusing Democrats of selective outrage and warning of a “very bad” nuclear deal. Cotton said he had no regrets, saying the fierce criticism showed that Obama wasn’t negotiating “the hardest deal possible.”

The United States and five other world powers — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — have been negotiating as a group for about 18 months to try to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Officials have said the deal under consideration would see Iran freeze its nuclear program for at least a decade, with restrictions then lifted over an additional five years or so. In exchange, the United States and other countries would gradually lift economic sanctions but maintain monitoring of nuclear facilities.

Iran denies it plans to build a nuclear weapon, and says it only wants to enrich uranium to generate electricity and for other peaceful purposes.

The two sides hope to complete an outline of a deal by the end of this month, and then work out details of a comprehensive step-by-step agreement by June 30.

Officials on both sides would like to complete the framework this week, however, so they can adjourn before the Iranian new year celebration, which begins Saturday. But the senior administration official made no promises.

Photo: U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers via Flickr

Obama Administration Collects Data To Sell Iran Nuclear Deal

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Inside a top-security building at a classified U.S. site, government experts intensely monitor rows of tall, cylindrical machines that may offer the Obama administration its best hope for persuading the public to back a nuclear deal with Iran.

Using centrifuges acquired when Libya abandoned its nuclear program in 2003, as well as American-built equipment, the government has spent millions of dollars over more than a decade to build replicas of the enrichment facilities that are the pride of Iran’s nuclear program.

Since negotiations with Iran began in earnest, U.S. nuclear technicians have spent long hours tinkering with the machines to test different restrictions and see how much they would limit Iran’s ability to convert uranium into bomb fuel.

Soon, the administration may use the results of that secret research to try to convince the public that negotiations produced a good deal.

Diplomats appear to have made significant progress in their effort to reach the outline of a nuclear deal by the end of this month.

But the administration still faces a daunting task not just to complete the deal, but also to sell it to the public and Congress. The facts accumulated over more than a dozen years by a small army of experts from the Energy Department and other agencies will play a key role in that effort, officials hope.

So far, “the opposition is winning the battle for public opinion,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control advocacy foundation and an administration ally. “They say we’re working with the evil Iranians. They say Obama is vainglorious and weak.”

But once the deal is complete and the administration lays out a detailed factual case, he predicted, “all that will shift dramatically.”

U.S. officials won’t comment on the classified research, which is being conducted at an undisclosed location in the United States. But former officials and private analysts say American agencies have constructed models of the Iranian facilities relying on informants in Iran, information from foreign governments and voluminous data about Iran’s program collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

The technical data from that modeling effort provide insights on whether any deal will accomplish the main Western goal: to prevent the Iranians from being able to accumulate the amount of fissile material that would allow them to build a single bomb in a year or less.

The United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China are trying to work out such a deal. They would ease economic sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran’s agreement to restrict its nuclear activities for ten to 15 years. If the negotiators can reach the outline of an agreement this month, they will try to complete a comprehensive agreement before the end of June.

The six world powers are trying to hold down Iran’s potential “breakout” period — the amount of time that would be needed to produce enough fissile material for a single warhead — by limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can have, capping its stockpile of enriched uranium and restricting the way it connects hundreds of centrifuges into groups called cascades.

Under an interim agreement that the six world powers and Iran reached in November 2013, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to contain 20 percent fissionable material — a level that is short of weapons-grade but which can fairly quickly be enriched further. The material was diluted or converted to a form that can’t readily be enriched to a higher level.

The agreement set a cap on the amount of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent the Iranians can keep. The country’s nuclear sites are monitored on a daily basis by the IAEA to ensure compliance. As a result, although Iran continues to spin its centrifuges, it is further from having a weapon than before the interim agreement was reached, according to administration officials. Israeli officials, who oppose the longer-term deal taking shape, have generally agreed that the interim deal has worked.

In its quest for public support of the overall deal, the White House has some catching up to do. Officials had hoped to be able to delay debate on a deal until an agreement was complete.

But as talks bogged down last year, with two deadlines missed, critics of the deal mobilized and began attacking details of the negotiations that leaked into public view, in part from Israeli officials who oppose the potential agreement. Critics include skeptical lawmakers, foreign governments, particularly Israel, and a panoply of well-funded lobbying and research groups in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his March 3 address to Congress, roundly criticized the proposed deal because it reportedly might last only ten years and would allow Iran to retain 6,000 or more centrifuges, compared with the few hundred that the administration originally demanded.

Administration officials say that in return for agreeing to a larger number of centrifuges, they have insisted that Iran accept other restrictions. Those would cap the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran and restrict the configuration of cascades to reduce their output.

Officials say they are confident the public would prefer a deal to the uncertain alternatives of war or more economic sanctions. But the White House has shown it takes the criticism seriously by organizing a campaign-style communications effort that tries to respond quickly to attacks.

Obama’s inner circle meets several times a week to organize the effort to win over public opinion for what is one of the president’s top goals of his final term. They plan to bolster their efforts by lining up endorsements from respected public figures, nuclear specialists and allied governments.

The public appears ambivalent. Several polls have indicated that Americans would prefer a negotiated solution, but a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released March 9 suggested that 71 percent doubted that a deal would keep Iran from eventually getting a nuclear weapon.

The administration gained ground last week from a Republican blunder when 47 GOP senators signed a letter to Iran warning that Congress could torpedo any deal and that a future president could abandon it. The letter set off an angry Democratic backlash and, according to lawmakers, lowered the chances that Democratic senators would provide enough votes to allow victories for Republican bills that the White House fears would undermine the talks.

One of the proposed bills would add new sanctions if there’s no deal. Administration officials say passage of more sanctions now, even ones contingent on future events, would torpedo the talks. The other bill would subject any Iran deal to an up-or-down vote in Congress. Unlike a treaty, the Iran deal would be an executive agreement, which does not require Senate ratification. Congress would still have to vote on measures to lift some existing sanctions although others could be modified by the president.

“Selling the deal in Congress is going to be a major challenge,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-NC), a supporter of the diplomacy. “No question about it.”

The administration’s arguments for the deal may also be challenged by outside experts. Israel also might weigh in; analysts say the country has built its own models of the Iranian hardware.

Gary Samore, President Barack Obama’s top arms control adviser in the first term, said administration officials are “in a very strong position to make technical arguments to defend their case that they’ve got a one-year breakout period.”

But “all these calculations are based on uncertainties and assumptions, so there is room for other well-informed people to challenge them,” said Samore, now executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

It’s still unclear whether the anticipated framework, if reached this month, would be a detailed document or a vague one that is harder to defend.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said he wants no written agreement until all details are settled. And the two sides remain divided on crucial issues, including the pace of sanctions relief, limits on Iranian nuclear research and Iran’s enrichment capacity and monitoring of Iran’s program, diplomats say.

President Barack Obama leaves Air Force One with Sen. Barbara Boxer after arriving at LAX on Thursday, March 12, 2015, in Los Angeles. Obama taped an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and attended a DNC event. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Hillary Clinton Email Probe Expected To Take Months

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — State Department lawyers will need months to sort through tens of thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private account and decide which should be kept as part of the official record, a senior department official said, presaging a review that will likely keep the controversy over her messages alive for months.

The dispute over Clinton’s use of a private email account rather than an official one while she was secretary of State already has generated four days of politically damaging headlines for the likely presidential candidate, as well as embarrassment for the State Department.

The review now seems likely to keep the story alive until long after Clinton’s formal announcement of her candidacy, expected to take place sometime next month.

Another U.S. official described the task of reviewing the messages, primarily in the hands of the State Department’s general counsel, as a “big mess.”

The Washington Post reported Thursday that department officials will examine whether Clinton’s use of the private email account violated security protocols officials set for agency personnel. Those rules require that certain kinds of information be carried only on departmental accounts.

Federal rules also require that official correspondence be archived and retrievable so that agencies can comply with requests for information from the public through the Freedom of Information Act and from Congress. Whether Clinton’s emails met those rules remains in doubt.

Current Secretary of State John Kerry is the first head of the department to exclusively use an official email account, his aides have said. Secretaries of State prior to Clinton also used private email, at least some of the time. But they may not have been covered by the same rules as Clinton. Federal regulations about email and how it can be used have evolved over the past two decades as the technology has become ubiquitous.

Four days after the controversy erupted, the State Department and Clinton have yet to answer a list of relevant questions. She’s not said why she maintained the private account, rather than an official one. The department hasn’t said who approved her use of the account, which ran counter to administration policy that all staff should use departmental accounts.

Also unclear is what kind of information Clinton conveyed in her emails and whether her use of a private account put diplomatic secrets at greater risk.

Photo: Canada2020 via Flickr

Administration: Few Guantanamo Detainees Turn To Terrorism After Release

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

The Obama administration on Wednesday accused Republican critics of overstating the number of accused terrorists who have taken up arms after being released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A group of GOP lawmakers, seeking to block administration efforts to close the prison, this week proposed legislation to slow the release of inmates. They said about 30 percent of those released have turned to terrorism since the facility began housing militants in 2002.

But the State Department, without naming the critics, said they have conflated “suspected” and “confirmed” cases of recidivism.

In a statement, a senior State Department official said 19 percent of detainees released before President Barack Obama took office in 2009 had been confirmed to have turned to terrorism, and 14.3 percent were suspected of doing so.

The number of confirmed cases among those released since 2009 has fallen to 6.8 percent, with the rate of those suspected at 1.1 percent, according to the official, who declined to be identified under administration ground rules.

The official cited a September 2014 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence saying that nearly half of the confirmed recidivists, and more than one-third of the suspected recidivists, are dead or in custody.

The administration released 28 prisoners from the prison in 2014, and is expected to release more in the coming weeks.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced the legislation on Tuesday. He said the committee would take up the bill.

“We know for a fact that roughly 30 percent of those who have been released have reentered the fight,” McCain said in announcing the legislation.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

White House Says It Should’ve Sent Higher-Ranking Official To Paris Rally

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The White House admitted Monday that it blundered in not sending a higher-ranking administration official to Sunday’s giant rally in Paris in support of free speech.

“We agree that we should have sent someone with a higher profile,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in response to questions about criticism over its failure to send a top-level official.

The highest-ranking U.S. representatives were Jane Hartley, the U.S. ambassador to France, and Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for Europe.

France rushed to defend the Obama administration. Though President Barack Obama was not among the nearly four dozen world leaders who appeared, “there are absolutely no hard feelings,” Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, said on MSNBC. “The first impression we have had is the support expressed by President Obama.”

An estimated 1.5 million people attended the rally, which was aimed at expressing international unity four days after attacks in Paris by French Islamists killed 17.

Among those present were the heads of state of France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

But Araud noted that Obama visited the French embassy in Washington to express condolences, and that he put out two written statements last week deploring the massacres and expressing sympathy for France. Obama also briefly talked about the attacks at the beginning of speeches he gave last week on domestic initiatives.

Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling on official business in India, announced Monday that he was shuffling his schedule to visit France at the end of the week. He insisted that the criticism of the administration was “quibbling,” given officials’ repeated expressions of support.

Obama’s decision drew fire from a number of Republicans. But even some critics often sympathetic to the administration said the decision was a blunder.

“Not an excuse in the universe” could explain the lapse, tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator who is now with the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

Photo: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Gerard Araud, Ambassador of France, attend a silent march in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, to honor those who died during three days of attacks in Paris. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)