Uncertainty in Geneva on Iran leads to tough talk in Washington

As Western powers express skepticism on Iran nuclear deal, key US senators threaten new sanctions without progress.

FM Zarif in Geneva 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
FM Zarif in Geneva 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- French and American diplomats expressed skepticism on Thursday that negotiations in Geneva between world powers and Iran would achieve an interim deal this week over the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program.
Just a day into the third Swiss summit on the nuclear crisis since October, France called on the international community to maintain "firmness" over the language of a proposed deal that would effectively halt Iran's uranium enrichment and plutonium programs.
Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia – would then agree to relieve some financial sanctions against Iran for a period of six months, during which time the parties would attempt to forge a permanent agreement.
Failure to reach a final deal in that time would lead to a resumption of the full sanctions regime.
"The P5+1 remains entirely united in our proposal," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Thursday. "Our negotiators are making progress, but as we all know these issues are complicated and take time to hash out."
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, leading the US delegation in Geneva, met bilaterally with her Iranian counterparts on Wednesday evening. No bilateral meeting took place on Thursday, but representatives from P5+1 powers met separately, Psaki said.
"This [interim] agreement can only be possible based on firmness," Laurent Fabius, foreign minister of France, told France 2 television. "For now the Iranians have not been able to accept the position of the six. I hope they will accept it."
But in comments targeting France's corps diplomatique, the deputy of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that an element of professional trust had been compromised in the public row.
"We have lost our trust," Abbas Araqchi, the Iranian deputy, said. "We cannot enter serious talks until the trust is restored. But that doesn't mean that we will stop negotiations."
And yet without a deal, Washington is now primed to act on its own. After weeks of heated debate on the timing of a new sanctions bill in the Senate between congressmen, the White House and the Israeli government, one key senator has thrown support behind the bill should negotiations fail in Geneva this week.
We all strongly support those negotiations and hope they will succeed, and want them to produce the strongest possible agreement," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls whether or not the bill will get a vote in the upper chamber. "However, Mr. President, we're also aware of the possibility that the Iranians could keep the negotiations from succeeding.
"I hope that won't happen," Reid continued. "But the Senate must be prepared to move forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returns after the Thanksgiving recess. I'm committed to do just that."
Several senators have proposed legislation that would further tighten the noose around Iran's oil sector and the country's access to foreign exchange. But, at the urging of the Obama administration, Reid has held off in order to allow negotiations to play out.
Responding to Reid, Psaki thanked the Senate majority leader for waiting until after talks conclude in Geneva this week to move forward with any new legislation. But the administration hopes Reid will continue to "give the space" requested by the president for negotiations to succeed, she added.
"Broadly speaking, if the negotiations fail writ large over the coming months or however long... we would lead the charge for more sanctions," Psaki said. "That's one of the reasons why we've been so clear in Congress why we should give diplomacy the chance to breathe, to see if it works out."
Iranian parliamentarians have warned that progress in Congress on new sanctions would force them to exit the talks. But it now appears that a failure to achieve an interim deal in Geneva will lead to progress in Congress on new penalties.
Introducing a bill Thursday that would require Iran first comply with the tenets of an interim deal-- and to accept the terms of a final agreement-- before any sanctions are lifted, Senator Bob Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Congress should proceed regardless of what happens in Switzerland this week.
"Whatever the outcome in Geneva may be this week, I’m hopeful the Senate will work in a bipartisan fashion to strengthen the position of the US in these negotiations so we can reach a final status agreement that will prevent the Iranians from ever developing a nuclear weapon," Corker said.
Reuters contributed to this report.