Can the Americans walk away from talks with Iran?

The president's word is tested by Tuesday's hard deadline with Iran.

March 30, 2015 19:53
2 minute read.

Chandelier in a negotiating room at the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland. (photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)


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LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Iran has one day left to make some very hard choices.

That’s what American negotiators want Iran to believe entering March 31. US President Barack Obama has given them strict instructions to walk away from that point on – not from the talks entirely, but from Switzerland temporarily to conduct a “reassessment” of the path forward.

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“Fundamental decisions have to be made now, and they don’t get any easier as time goes by,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. “It is time to make hard decisions.”

One senior administration official here says the US team does not expect Iran to show its cards until the 11th hour.

The Iranians are likely to wait until that point in order to see just how much they can get in a deal from the Americans and their European partners.

That dynamic – the “rhythm” of diplomacy, as negotiators say – makes it difficult to begin drafting a joint document for public release. Officials from all sides repeatedly say that nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed.

One outside pressure on the talks has been the prospect of action in the US Congress. Earlier in the month, leadership on Capitol Hill delayed moving forward a bill that would provide Congress with the ability to vote, up or down, on participation in the nuclear deal, through its repeal of sanctions against Iran or through the funding of the president’s executive actions on Iran.


Theoretically, Congress’s commitment to hold off any votes until April 14 provides the president ample time to negotiate the political framework he seeks.

The president’s staff reminds journalists that, in fact, the only true deadline in talks with Iran is June 30. That is the date until which the P5+1 – the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – has agreed to formally extend the Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement with Iran temporarily freezing the nuclear crisis.

But other factors are at play that may dissuade Obama from extending the talks much further.

The Iranians have been explicitly told that Obama is serious about walking away without an agreement by Wednesday. That commitment by the president makes it difficult to continue talking as usual past March 31.

While the French and the Russians have mocked the deadline, the enforcement power of the president’s word will be tested by his commitment to March 31 as a date certain.

Paris warns that the deadline puts unnecessary pressure on the parties to make concessions they might not make otherwise.

France’s envoy to Washington, Gérard Araud, argued last week on Twitter that the deadline was a “bad tactic,” “counterproductive” to the goals set by world powers.

Washington is hoping that pressure applies exclusively to the Iranians. Tehran seems to be banking on that pressure working the other way around.

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