(CNSNews.com) – Much ado has been made of a late March deadline for a political agreement on a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, but the Obama administration is playing down expectations that there will be any public announcement at all at month’s end.
“The president of the United States said that he expects us to have a political understanding by the end of March,” a senior State Department official told reporters in background in Montreux, Switzerland last week.
“What we want to try to do by the end of March is have those understandings but have enough sense of the detail to know what we are getting,” the official added. “But no-one expects that we are going to announce an agreement on March 30th – none of you should expect we’re going to announce an agreement, because we will not know if we have that final agreement until we have all of that detail written.”
Up to now, the general expectation has been that the outline of an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – would be made public by late March, with annexes on technical details finalized by the end of June.
When he announced the latest in a series of extensions in the talks, on Nov. 24 last year, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Vienna that negotiators had agreed to prolong them “for seven months, with the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months.”
“If we aren’t able to reach political agreement in four months then we’ll revisit, but that’s the time that they fixed for reaching that understanding,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told a press briefing in Washington the same day.
Since that announcement, March 24 – exactly four months from Kerry’s announcement in November – has repeatedly been cited as the deadline for the political agreement, and the date has come up during discussions and testimony on Capitol Hill.
In a letter to Obama last January a groups of Democrats skeptical of the chances of a good deal with Iran pledged not to vote on new sanctions legislation opposed by the White House before “March 24 – the deadline agreed upon for a political framework agreement.”
During a Senate Banking Committee hearing on January 27, the March 24 deadline date was mentioned no fewer than 15 times. Two days later the committee marked up the sanctions bill by an 18-4 vote.
Similarly, last week Senate Democrats unhappy with a plan by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule debate on another bill, requiring the president to submit any Iran deal to lawmakers for approval, said they would not vote for it until it had gone through committee markup, and not until “after the March 24th deadline for the political framework agreement.”
But while lawmakers have been speaking of a framework agreement by March 24, the State Department has both pushed the date back by a week to the end of March, and is now suggesting that even then, no public announcement should be expected.
“No-one expects that we are going to announce an agreement on March 30th,” the senior official said in Montreux.
The two pieces of legislation that were earlier tied to progress being reached in the talks by a March 24 deadline are:
--The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, co-sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), requiring the president to submit any agreement to Congress within five days of its conclusion, and hold off on lifting any sanctions during a 60-day review period.
--The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Menendez, providing for delayed-trigger sanctions on Iran if a comprehensive agreement is not reached.
The White House has threatened to veto both.
McConnell had planned to hold a procedural vote on the Iran review legislation on March 10, but as a result of the Democrats’ objections postponed the move.
On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, he voiced optimism about the bill, saying, “I'm hoping we could get 67 senators to assert the historic role of the Senate and the Congress in looking at matters of this magnitude.”
Kerry held three days of talks with the Iranians in Montreux last week, and another round of the P5+1 negotiations has been scheduled to begin on March 15 – nine days before the March 24 deadline date cited by lawmakers, and 16 days ahead of the end of the month date favored by the administration.