The "real political deadline" for a final nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran is July 9, not the end of this month, according to Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden's national security adviser.
On June 22, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, "We are sticking to the deadline. The deadline is June 30." He also said, however, that "short-term adjustments may be required" after the deadline to complete an agreement. Kahl's comments are the first public acknowledgment that the U.S. team is allowing itself more than a week of wiggle room to get the deal done. Secretary of State John Kerry left Washington today to join negotiations in Vienna.
Kahl, who also serves as deputy assistant to President Barack Obama for national security, told an audience at the Truman National Security Project conference Friday that U.S. negotiators are operating under the view that they have until July 9 to complete a deal. He said that deadline took into account the 30-day review period that legislation provides for if the deal is submitted to Congress before July 9 and a 60-day review period if submitted after July 9.
The administration doesn't want to give the Congress 60 days to review the deal and thereby further delay its implementation, Kahl said. If the deal is submitted by July 9, Congress will have to vote its approval or disapproval before leaving town for its August recess. If the deal comes in after July 9, the vote as well as the subsequent potential veto and veto override attempts would be delayed until September.
Asked whether there will even be a final deal, Kahl said, "We'll see." "The reality is, we know where our bottom lines are . and Iran agreed to them in April," he said. "So we will either be able to stick to those bottom lines and flesh out an agreement . or the Iranians won't make the tough decisions and then there won't be a deal." Kahl's comments seemed to be a reference to the speech this week by Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who appeared to reject several conditions contained in a framework document released by the State Department in April, following a round of negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Kahl said that "political rhetoric" from the Iranians is common, that the negotiations will likely go "down to the wire," and that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the outcome. He also sought to dispel criticisms of the administration's negotiations, including the perception that the administration is so desperate to chalk up a legacy item on foreign policy that it is willing to accept a bad deal.
"We know that myth is wrong because we've had the opportunity to do that a couple times and we've passed," he said.
The deal that many lawmakers and foreign leaders have advocated for, which would include a dismantlement of Iran's program, an end to Iranian uranium enrichment and an end to Iran's terrorism sponsorship worldwide, is just not realistic, according to Kahl.
"I call it the unicorn deal, because it's very pretty but it's ultimately mythical," he said. "We have no way to get to that outcome." The nuclear deal is separate and not linked to all of Iran's other illicit and violent activities, and without a deal, the West would face "the worst of all worlds," Kahl said: an Iran that's racing to the bomb with no diplomatic process to stop it.
He compared the talks with Iran with nuclear nonproliferation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the 1980s and 90s. He said that example showed that nuclear agreements can be separated from other contentious issues.
"We have experience walking and chewing gum at the same time, it was called the Cold War," he said. The Soviet Union was "a much worse actor and a much greater threat to the United States than Iran is, objectively." Kahl rejected the notion that giving Iran billions of dollars of their frozen funds when a deal is signed will allow Iran to expand its destabilizing and illicit activities around the world. He noted that terrorism sanctions would not be lifted and predicted Iran would spend most of its new found money domestically.
"It is our assessment . that they are not going to spend the vast majority of the money on guns, most of it will go to butter," he said. "That said, there's no doubt the IRGC will have some more money." Iran might moderate itself after a deal is signed but it might not, Kahl said. But the fact that Iran might remain a bad actor after a deal is not a reason to tank the deal, he said.
"We could keep sanctions in place forever, and it's not stopping what they are doing today in Yemen or Lebanon or Syria or Iraq."
Josh Rogin, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about national security and foreign affairs.