Negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks plan to announce Monday that they have reached a deal to limit Tehran’s atomic program in return for sanctions relief, as U.S. lawmakers and other critics express concern that the Obama administration has conceded too much in the bid for a historic diplomatic agreement.
Two diplomats in Vienna told The Associated Press on Sunday that a provisional agreement was imminent, although the final details were still being worked out. They said a formal, final deal would be open to review by officials in the capitals of Iran and the six world powers at the talks.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who threatened to walk away from the negotiations last week, said Sunday that “a few tough things” remain in the way but added, “We’re getting to some real decisions.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also sounded cautiously optimistic. “I hope that we are finally entering the last phase of this negotiation,” he told reporters.
After more than a decade of talks, the agreement running roughly 100 pages would lift tens of billions of dollars worth of economic sanctions against Iran. In return, Tehran would allow international inspections of three nuclear facilities, reducing its uranium-enrichment centrifuges by two-thirds and eliminating nearly all of its stockpile of enriched uranium that could be used to build a bomb.
In Washington, top lawmakers expressed doubts about the impending agreement, saying President Obama faces major resistance in Congress if negotiators complete a weak deal.
“This is going to be a very hard sell for the administration,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday” when asked about the likelihood of Congress signing off on an agreement. “We already know that it’s going to leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state.”
Because the talks have missed two deadlines, Congress will have 60 days to review the deal, requiring Mr. Obama to wait before lifting sanctions against Iran.
Mr. Obama, in search of a diplomatic resolution to burnish his foreign policy legacy, had no public events Sunday. He didn’t even play golf, and he stayed at the White House in case he was able to announce that a deal had been reached.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said no deal “is better than a bad deal.”
“From everything that’s leaked from these negotiations, the administration’s backed away from almost all of the guidelines that they set up for themselves,” Mr. Boehner said on the CBS show “Face the Nation.”
Former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, speaking about the details leaked so far, said it is “the worst international agreement that I can think of negotiated in the last century of American diplomacy.”
“The way it stands now, it’s an extraordinary victory for Iran,” Mr. Bolton, a national security specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview Sunday. “It’s a diplomatic Waterloo for the United States.”
Mr. Bolton said that although the full details have not been disclosed, the negotiations in recent weeks have been aimed at “papering over” rather than resolving disputes about Iran’s past nuclear weapons activities and atomic inspectors’ access to Iranian military sites.
Further, he said the mechanism for snapping sanctions back into place if Iran violates the agreement appears to rest on a committee that will include Iran, a move that he called “unbelievable.”
“Wait until the deal is signed and the sanctions are lifted. Then the heavy lifting comes,” said Mr. Bolton, who served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in the George W. Bush administration. “And the Iranians are counting on what I believe to be a correct assessment of the Europeans, which is that once the sanctions come off, they’re not going back on.”
‘Where we are today’
The nuclear agreement calls for Iran’s program to be limited by inspectors, real-time electronic monitoring, physical constraints on its stockpile of enriched uranium and its centrifuges, and a ban on reprocessing of nuclear fuel rods.
Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said lawmakers will try to ensure that Iran is held accountable for any violations of the agreement.
“I’m concerned about where we’re going,” Mr. Corker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “At the end of the day, I think people understand that if this is a bad deal that is going to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, they would own this deal if they voted for it, and so they’ll want to disapprove it.”
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he is concerned about the pending deal because the U.S. has gone from making sure Iran does not have nuclear capability to trying to control it.
Mr. Menendez said Mr. Obama must ensure that the agreement deters Iran’s program for the long term, “because in 12 to 13 years we will be exactly back to where we are today except that Iran will have $100 [billion] to $150 billion more in its pocket and promoting terrorism throughout the Middle East.”
The round of nuclear talks has been extended three times since the initial deadline of June 30. The mood among negotiators turned more somber each time a new target date — first July 7, then July 10 and then July 13 — was set.
Diplomats familiar with the talks said negotiators had agreed on most of the nuts and bolts of implementing the deal.
But over the past week, issues that had been on the back burner led to more disputes. Among them is Iran’s demand for lifting a U.N. arms embargo and its insistence that any U.N. Security Council resolution approving the nuclear deal be written in a way that stops describing Iran’s nuclear activities as illegal.
A diplomat familiar with the negotiations said disagreements also persist on how long some of the restrictions on imports of nuclear technology and other embargoes outlined in any new U.N. Security Council resolution will last. The diplomat, who demanded anonymity because the diplomat wasn’t allowed to discuss the confidential talks, said restrictions will last for years, not months.
Reducing Iran’s centrifuges
Meanwhile, Iranians were preparing to celebrate in the event of an agreement. Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported that Brig. Gen. Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi, the deputy police chief, said authorities are fully prepared for such celebrations.
Despite Mr. Kerry’s relatively upbeat take, comments by Iran’s supreme leader suggested that Tehran’s mistrust of Washington would persist no matter what the outcome of the talks.
Iran’s state-run Press TV cited Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday as calling the U.S. an “excellent example of arrogance.” It said Ayatollah Khamenei told university students in Tehran to be “prepared to continue the struggle against arrogant powers.”
His comments appeared to be a blow to U.S. hopes that an agreement would lead to improved bilateral relations that could translate into increased cooperation in a common cause: the fight against Islamic State militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of what he considers a deal that is too lenient on Tehran, said Ayatollah Khamenei’s comments show that Western powers are “caving” in to Iran even as the Islamic republic keeps railing against them.
Israel was never a party to the monthslong negotiations conducted by the so-called P5+1 nations — the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.
Iran has three nuclear facilities — the Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment operations, and the Arak heavy-water plutonium reactor. The Fordow facility is deep underground in a mountain, presenting the U.S. and Israel with a difficult military target.
The Iranian nuclear program has more than 19,000 centrifuges — rapidly spinning glass tubes for enriching uranium. In 2006, Tehran had 164 centrifuges.
Under the agreement, Iran would need to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds, and to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent.
Iran has up to 26,400 pounds of uranium enriched to a level for use in nuclear reactors. It’s enough material that, were it enriched further to weapons grade, Iran could build eight to 10 nuclear weapons.
The U.S., Israel and Britain already devote significant resources to monitoring Iran for any indication of covert nuclear operations.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.