The United States and its diplomatic partners hope to seal an interim agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program “soon,” the White House said Monday. Doing so will start a six-month countdown to reach a final accord — or face the possibility of war.
U.S. officials say that the breakthrough deal, unveiled with great fanfare in late November, offers Iran gradual, limited and reversible sanctions relief in return for halting suspicious nuclear activities. It sets a six-month time frame for reaching a comprehensive agreement that could lift sanctions entirely if Washington and its partners are satisfied that the Islamic republic has verifiably abandoned what they fear might be a quest to develop the ability to build nuclear weapons.
“Reagan said trust but verify. We say test but verify — test and verify,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in December.
That “verifiably” is key. Ever since the interim deal was announced, negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China (the so-called “P5+1”) have been trying to work out with Iran how the international community will monitor Tehran’s compliance.
So technically, the interim deal’s six-month clock for reaching a final deal hasn’t started?
“Correct,” said White House national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
“The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions over the past several weeks,” Hayden told Yahoo News. “The teams have taken a few outstanding points back to [their respective] capitals and expect to finalize the implementation plan soon.”
Earlier news reports, citing senior Iranian officials, had said that the interim deal would start being implemented on Jan. 20.
Even then, that six-month timetable isn’t set in stone. Technically, the two sides could agree by mutual consent to extend the period for reaching a comprehensive deal. But failure to reach a final accord within that time frame would put immense pressure on the fragile diplomatic efforts.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly warned Iran that "all options are on the table" -- including the use of military force -- to prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons. And top officials have said that the interim deal may present the last, best chance to avoid that outcome.