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Next Stage For Iran Nuclear Talks Faces Multiple Challenges


Even when Barack Obama first ran for president, he was promising a new approach to Iran. Now six years later and many months of intense negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, the president is in sight of a payoff. Still as much effort as it has taken to get Iran to agree to limiting its nuclear ambitions, it will be a monumental sell for the administration to get Congress and key Mideast allies to go along with the deal, or at least not kill it. To walk us through what's ahead, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and also NPR international correspondent Peter Kenyon, who's been reporting on the negotiations with Iran. Good morning to both of you.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.


MONTAGNE: All right. Well, let's start with you, Peter. Remind us of where we are in these talks first, and what did the two sides achieve last week?

KENYON: Well, they've got agreement in principle on many of the major elements of what would be a landmark deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program. As the State Department lays it out, Iran will not just freeze, but significantly roll back the most sensitive part of its program; that's the enrichment of nuclear fuel, uranium or plutonium. The number of centrifuges enriching uranium would be slashed. The fuel they produce will be capped at 5 percent purity. That's good for a reactor, but not a nuclear warhead. And its stockpile of even that low-enriched uranium would be cut by 97 percent.

And in order to verify all this, the IAEA U.N. inspectors would be granted even greater access than they've got now. They're going to be watching the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to the creating of fuel rods. So they'll be looking for any sign that fuel's being diverted to a covert program. So Iran in return gets sanctions relief for this, especially banking restrictions that have caused all kinds of problems for them. And, as I said, this is just in principle. There is no actual deal yet until it's written down and signed.

MONTAGNE: Right. That would be the June agreement. Just briefly, what are the next steps to get there?

KENYON: Well, I think the next thing that will happen will be experts sitting down to begin drafting a document. It's not going to be easy even on the items they have settled on, and there's some key decisions that have not been made yet. I mean, the timing and scope of some of the sanctions relief is in dispute, so both sides are pretty much declaring victory right now to the point that it sometimes seems like they're talking about two different deals. But they both know that there's a lot of difficult work ahead.

MONTAGNE: Now to the question of the hour and to you, Mara, what does the president face on the domestic front?

LIASSON: Well, the president needs Congress to eventually lift a lot of the sanctions. And he is starting to sell this deal to the country, to the Congress, to Israel. He's invited the Arab allies to Camp David. And he gave an interview to The New York Times - to Tom Friedman yesterday, and he laid out his message. He said this diplomatic agreement is the most effective way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

MONTAGNE: And what has been the initial reaction from members of Congress?

LIASSON: The reaction has been along party lines, as you'd expect, plenty of criticism from Republicans accusing the president of making a bad deal, of giving away too much. But congressional leaders seem more willing than you'd expect to give the president till the end of June before they try to stop a deal. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, does plan to go ahead with legislation next week in his committee that would give Congress the right to review the deal to vote up or down. He was on Fox News yesterday. Here's what he said.


SENATOR BOB CORKER: There's strong bipartisan for support for a binding vote by Congress. This is not something - look, the president needs to sell this to the American people, and Congress needs to be involved in this way.

MONTAGNE: OK. So what are the chances Congress could actually block the deal completely?

LIASSON: Well, I think it will be hard. The Corker bill is just the first step, and the White House says they will veto the Corker bill as as currently written. But the president did seem more open to some kind of formal congressional review, as long as it would leave intact his presidential prerogatives to make international agreements. I'm not sure what that language would be. As you just heard, Corker is not open to a non-binding vote. Corker already has some Democratic support, and he'd need all the Republicans plus 13 Democrats to get to the 67 votes you'd need to override a presidential veto. So the White House is concentrating on Democrats, working with them to alter the Corker bill just enough so it's palatable to the White House.

MONTAGNE: And what might be the political costs for the GOP if Congress halted the deal?

LIASSON: Well, the Republican Congress would be taking some risks, too, because the consequences of the failure would fall squarely on their shoulders if Iran did end up getting a bomb or if the international support for the sanctions regime collapsed.

MONTAGNE: And, Mara, what could this agreement, on the other hand, mean for the Obama legacy in the long term, and in the immediate - that is in the 2016 presidential campaign?

LIASSON: Well, it'll definitely be an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Presumably the Republican candidate would run against it, say they would have made a better deal. Hillary Clinton, if she's the Democratic nominee, will have to do a careful balancing act to support the deal but remain skeptical. But if they do get a final agreement and it works to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, which we won't know for some time, it would be a huge accomplishment for President Obama. It would vindicate his policy of engagement. And it would give him a foreign policy success for his legacy, especially since everything else in foreign policy during his term looks pretty bad - Iraq is not stable, ISIS is growing, Russia bit off a chunk of Ukraine and it's been harder to get out of Afghanistan than the president thought.

MONTAGNE: And, Peter Kenyon, let's get back to you. It's not of course just the work of convincing Congress here at home. What about key allies in the region, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia?

KENYON: Well, they're both quite unhappy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes any enrichment of nuclear fuel by Iran is much too dangerous to permit. Saudi Arabia also worries about a nuclear-armed Iran, but they also are even more worried perhaps about their regional ambitions and influence. They're worried about recent developments in Yemen and of course Hezbollah and Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So the president will be gathering Arab allies. It'll be interesting to see what commitments he's ready to make.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, international correspondent, and our national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks again.

LIASSON: Thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.