- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2015

Despite President Obama’s lofty rhetoric last week that he’d reached a “historic” nuclear understanding with Iran, the White House Monday tamped down expectations that a final deal is in sight, saying the two sides are still far apart on key sticking points.

While Iran has committed to unprecedented limits on its nuclear program, Iranian leaders still are demanding that any relief from economic sanctions — America’s key concession to Tehran — be immediate, while White House officials say the U.S. and its allies only will accept a phased-in approach to the lifting of sanctions.

The dispute, which looks to present a major hurdle to reaching a final agreement by the end of June, is just one of several unanswered questions that have top U.S. lawmakers wondering whether an acceptable deal with Iran truly is as close as Mr. Obama has portrayed.

Over the past few days, the White House consistently has tried to turn attention toward positive aspects of the agreement, such as Iran agreeing to greatly reduce its number of operating centrifuges and permit highly intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz continued that approach Monday, telling reporters the preliminary deal centers on “hard-nosed requirements” that will give the international community certainty that Iran isn’t pursuing a nuclear weapon.

But officials also conceded that a final deal is far from the finish line, and admitted that the question of exactly when sanctions on Tehran will be lifted was not resolved during last week’s marathon negotiations.

“The deal’s not done,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “You can’t start talking about relieving sanctions until we have reached definitive agreements about how we’re going to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. Which is to say, one has to come before the other.”

Mr. Earnest went on to say the Iranians still maintain all sanctions must be lifted immediately after a deal is signed. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30.

The U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 — Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China — maintain that sanctions must be lifted slowly in a process that would take months, possibly even years, depending on Iran’s level of cooperation.

Mr. Obama has authority to suspend most sanctions temporarily, but would need congressional authority to permanently undo them.

While the White House has stressed that any sanctions could be “snapped back” into place if Iran doesn’t live up to its commitments, officials in Tehran say the reverse also is true: The country could restart all aspects of its nuclear program if the U.S. doesn’t make good on the promise to lift sanctions.

“Whatever work we have on the nuclear program can be restored. … Our knowledge is local, and no one can take that away from us,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last week.

Around the world, there are fears about exactly what Iran will do once sanctions are lifted. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he believes Iran will use the financial benefits of sanctions relief to fund a “terror machine” that already is wreaking havoc across the region.

Top members of Congress share Mr. Netanyahu’s concerns.

“We cannot forget that Iran is pursuing a full-spectrum campaign to expand its sphere of influence in the greater Middle East. America and its allies will need to be vigilant in combating all of Iran’s other belligerent actions as it uses the funding that would be derived from sanctions relief to support proxy forces and advance its stockpile of missiles,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Monday.

Not only does the preliminary deal not solve the sanctions question, it also does not force Iran to stop threatening Israel, nor does it require Iran to even recognize Israel’s existence.

Mr. Obama said Monday such demands simply aren’t realistic.

“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” the president said in an interview with NPR. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is set to vote next week on a bill that would require Congress to sign off on any Iran deal. It would prohibit the president from lifting any sanctions for 60 days, giving the House and Senate sufficient time to review the agreement.

Mr. Obama has vowed to veto the bill, though key senators say they nearly have the needed 67 votes to override a veto.

Analysts say the issue of when sanctions are lifted, and what guarantees are put in place to assure potential investors they won’t suddenly reappear, is of utmost importance as the two sides try and reach a final, binding deal.

“This question about sanctions is crucial in terms of when they are relaxed, but the pledge to relax them must be pretty durable in order to convince businesses and individuals to make that fairly momentous decision to invest there,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

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