The Cable

Diplomats Close to Clinching Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran and world powers appear on the verge of a groundbreaking agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014. Big difference remained in nuclear talks between world powers and Iran on Sunday with fears that an agreement may not be reached before the deadline next week.
 AFP PHOTO / POOL/ JIM BOURG        (Photo credit should read JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014. Big difference remained in nuclear talks between world powers and Iran on Sunday with fears that an agreement may not be reached before the deadline next week. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ JIM BOURG (Photo credit should read JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images)

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers appear close to securing a landmark agreement with Iran that would impose limits on the country’s nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions.

Diplomats on Sunday offered optimistic accounts of the talks in Vienna and suggested the negotiations were at a final, decisive stage with only a few remaining questions to settle, after more than two weeks of bargaining that saw three deadlines come and go.

Two diplomats told the Associated Press that negotiators planned to announce a deal on Monday – in time for the latest deadline. And Tehran media quoted Iranian officials saying that diplomats were reviewing the text of a final agreement and a draft United Nations Security Council resolution that would possibly lift a U.N. arms embargo on Iran as part of the accord.

The embargo applies to conventional weapons, and Russia and China are keen to resume arms sales to Iran.  The question of the arms embargo, and when it might be lifted, was left unresolved in an earlier interim deal agreed in April that set the stage for the Vienna negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry sounded an optimistic tone in his public remarks Sunday, saying the U.S. and Iran “have a few tough things to do,” but that he remained “hopeful” that a deal was close.

In another sign that the talks were moving towards a possible conclusion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew to Vienna on Sunday to join the negotiations. He has chosen to stay out of the day-to-day discussions until major decisions were required.

But despite the upbeat accounts coming out of Vienna, a senior State Department official declined Sunday to comment on whether a deal was imminent and said there were still unresolved questions.

“We have never speculated about the timing of anything during these negotiations, and we’re certainly not going to start now – especially given the fact that major issues remain to be resolved in these talks,” the official said.

If an agreement is clinched, it would mark the culmination of years of diplomacy and a standoff between world powers and Iran over its nuclear ambitions that dates back more than a decade.

Once sealed, President Barack Obama’s administration will face the challenge of selling the agreement to a deeply divided Congress and to skeptical allies in the Middle East.

U.S. lawmakers will have 60 days to review the accord.

They will be focused on details about how Iran’s promises will be verified through inspections, how quickly sanctions will be eased, and to what extent Tehran revealed the extent of its past military work related to atomic weapons, including testing nuclear detonators.

If lawmakers vote against it, Obama could veto their move, and Republicans likely would face an uphill struggle trying to attack enough Democrats to override the president’s veto.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News Sunday that any deal agreed in Vienna would be “a very hard sell in Congress.”

The Republican senator said he hoped Democrats will take a close look at any accord but acknowledged the difficulty of overcoming a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority, saying an agreement will “likely be approved and passed.”

Israeli and Saudi officials already have accused Washington of making too many concessions to Iran, saying Tehran would be able to circumvent the deal and gain access to cash to fund its proxies across the region. Hezbollah, Tehran’s most powerful battlefield proxy, has suffered significant casualties in Syria, where it has been fighting to preserve the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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