Talks to defang Iran by curbing its ambitious nuclear program are running out of time, and Barack Obama has sent top envoys to salvage a deal critical both to Middle East peace and the President's hopes for a significant foreign policy achievement.
With failure to reach a nuclear-limitation deal by the July 20 deadline all but certain, high-ranking U.S. and Iranian envoys met Tuesday for the second day of face-to-face talks in Geneva, seeking a way around the critical issue of how many enrichment centrifuges Tehran can keep running.
Three sets of further talks between Russian, American and French envoys and Iran's delegation are expected Wednesday.
A six-month extension remains possible, but that would create new pressures in both Washington and Tehran, where critics of the diplomatic effort accuse the other side of stalling and bad faith.
Oil-rich Iran insists its dispersed, disguised and often deeply-buried nuclear facilities have no military purpose, and publicly disavows seeking to tip its growing array of long-range missiles with nuclear warheads. Still it wants to keep many thousands of centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to weapons grade, a capacity incompatible with the needs of power generating reactors that require only modestly-enriched uranium.
The big-powers – all nuclear-armed states and permanent Security Council members – plus Germany, are together seeking a limitation pact with Tehran. They want to allow Iran only a few hundred centrifuges, a number so low that it would take far longer for Iran to "break out" and amass weapons-grade fissile material.
"We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point, which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday.
Any extension of the July 20 deadline would require President Obama to seek Congressional approval. But with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and even some senior Senate Democrats furious with Mr. Obama over being kept in the dark about the swapping of Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo for a U.S. soldier, relations between lawmakers and the White House are currently frosty.
Congressional hawks consider Mr. Obama's overture to Tehran's ruling mullahs as a too-risky gambit that indicated weakness. Similarly, in Iran, hardliners unswayed by Mr. Obama's proffer of an open hand, regard President Hassan Rouhani's pragmatic willingness to deal with the "Great Satan" as dangerous.
An extension of talks may be preferable for both presidents even if delay unleashes domestic criticism.
"There will be strong opposition in both Washington and Tehran [but] I don't think either side can afford to take the blame for walking away," Gary Samore, the top White House nuclear disarmament official during Mr. Obama's first term, told Reuters.
Mr. Obama has staked considerable personal credibility on his very sharply different approach to Tehran, claiming it has achieved more than the threats of attack by his more bellicose predecessor.
"At the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government," Mr. Obama told the elite West Point military academy in a major foreign policy speech last month. As a result, Mr. Obama said, "for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement – one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force."
Not everyone was impressed by Mr. Obama's approach of strength through diplomacy-plus-sanctions.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a response to Mr. Obama's speech, said the U.S. has "renounced the idea of any military action" because "they realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked."
Despite the distance separating the two sides on centrifuges, inspections and safeguards, and the lifting of sanctions, there remains enormous pressure on both to avoid a collapse of the talks.
An interim deal was signed in November, but it provided only limited relief for the sanctions-strangled Iranian economy. Tehran has apparently kept its side of the bargain. A top Israeli intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, told a security conference this week that "Iran is abiding by the interim agreement and the pressures, mainly the economic crisis, are leading it toward a dialogue, which we regard as serious-minded, on a permanent agreement."
That assessment was in striking contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's denunciation of the November pact as an "historic mistake."
In an indication of the importance he attaches to the talks, Mr. Obama sent the nation's top career diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns – who also headed the secret talks that created the breakthrough last year – to meet with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Karachi in Geneva this week.
The initial November deal allowed for a six-month extension if progress was being made.