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“A Matter of War & Peace”: Iran, Powers Near Preliminary Deal in Face of Congress-Israel Opposition

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Negotiators meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, over an Iran nuclear deal are set to issue a general statement that enough progress has been made to continue in a new phase aimed at a comprehensive agreement in June. Details of the talks have been kept under wraps. The United States had imposed a Tuesday deadline for a preliminary accord in order to help stave off congressional opposition, buoyed by the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Congress has vowed to impose additional sanctions if negotiators fail to reach a preliminary agreement, and the Senate is expected to take up a measure that would give Congress final approval. We go to Lausanne for an update from Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, who has been following the negotiations closely.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Switzerland, where six days of historic talks over an Iran nuclear deal have reportedly closed. The Associated Press says negotiators will issue a general statement that enough progress has been made to continue in a new phase aimed at a comprehensive agreement in June. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said U.N. sanctions against Iran should be lifted if a nuclear deal is reached.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] I think sanctions should be suspended after the agreements are reached. They should be lifted. There are different ways—to lift them completely or first to suspend them temporarily and lift them legally afterwards. But in practice, it should mean that sanctions should be lifted and should not interfere with legal trade and economic activity between Iran and its foreign partners.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Congress has vowed to impose additional sanctions if negotiators fail to reach a preliminary deal.

Well, for more we go to Lausanne, Switzerland, where we’re joined by Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He has been following the negotiations closely there. His book is A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the agreement that has been worked out, Trita, just now?

TRITA PARSI: Frankly, no one can, because the details have not been released. All we know is that AP reports that there’s going to be a statement about an understanding. And the reason for that is that the Iranians refuse to agree to a two-phase agreement because of bad experience of doing that in 2009. But if it in reality is a political framework or just a mere understanding will be revealed once we have the details, which is scheduled to be released today.

AARON MATÉ: Trita, what was Iran’s bad experience that you mentioned, and what are you looking for to happen next?

TRITA PARSI: Well, in 2009, on October 1st in Geneva, for the first time, the Iranians and the Americans sat down during the first year of President Obama’s term, and they discussed the principles of a swap deal. The Iranians agreed, in principle, to a swap deal, and then later on, around the 20th of October, they had a conversation about the details. At that stage, it turned out that the two sides actually had irreconcilable differences when it comes to the details. The narrative that came out of that then was that the Iranians had first agreed and then backtracked. And it was very easy for the West to put the blame on the Iranians, which then later on became a critical component towards imposing new sanctions on Iran. That’s exactly what the Iranians are trying to avoid here. They don’t want to agree to anything that is unclear at this point and then, later on, when additional negotiations are taking place, find out that there is a disagreement and then, then, they get the blame for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of putting this off? I mean, what does it mean to say it’s a self-imposed deadline, and what you see as the major sticking points?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this deadline of March 31st in reality is primarily an American deadline, because of the pressure that Congress has been putting on the president of the United States. The other actors primarily look at June 30th as the real deadline, mindful of the fact that the interim agreement is valid for another three months. They could have walked away with nothing here, and the interim agreement would still be in place. So, what that means then is that the way that Congress has been putting pressure on the U.S. team has not worked in such a way that the Iranians are pressured. Rather, the pressure is truly on the American side and is adding time pressure on the Americans in a way that the others are not feeling. But nevertheless, it seems like they’re going to be able to walk away with something that would enable the U.S. team to come back and resist the pressures from Congress. And the next step then would be to continue the negotiations and work out a real framework, a real final deal, with a deadline of June 30th.

AARON MATÉ: Trita, you mentioned the obstacles, or potential obstacles, from Congress. There’s a measure from Senator Bob Corker that’s going to come up next month that would give Congress the ability to kill the deal, basically. Do you see that as a significant factor here? Can Congress stop whatever deal might be reached?

TRITA PARSI: Yeah, on April 14th, it’s scheduled to be marked up in the Senate. This is what is called an oversight bill, but in reality it contains measures that is more of an interference in the negotiations than mere oversight. For instance, the president does not have his suspension rights for sanctions for the first 60 days after a deal is struck in order for the Senate to review the deal. That is actually a direct interference, because what the two sides are negotiating about right now is precisely the schedule of sanctions relief. And if they come to a conclusion on that, and then the Senate says, “No, hold on, we are withdrawing your suspension rights for 60 days,” that is a direct interference that can cause the blame of the collapse of the talks to fall on the U.S. side.

AMY GOODMAN: What has surprised you most, Trita Parsi? You are a very close follower of relations between U.S. and Iran. And, of course, other countries are involved with this, as well—Russia, the foreign minister is just returning.

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think there is something absolutely unique and historic going on here. The P5+1 have their own severe disagreements, and actually conflicts, particularly between the United States and Russia right now, and the EU and Russia. Yet, on this issue, they have managed to keep a tremendous professional unity towards getting some form of an agreement on the nuclear issue. And it shows the importance of finding this agreement, because this truly is a matter of war and peace. And that, I think, casts the opponents in the Senate, or in Israel or elsewhere, as even more isolated, because, frankly, the entire P5+1 is united towards trying to get the same deal that the president of the United States is pursuing.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, right now, the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, has taken a delegation to meet with Netanyahu in Israel. In Lausanne, Josh Block, who is a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, spokesperson, is—has the Israel Project. What pressure has Israel brought to bear here? Do you think Netanyahu is succeeding in scuttling the talks?

TRITA PARSI: The Israelis have put a tremendous amount of pressure, from the very first minute that President Obama came into office and declared that he wanted to pursue diplomacy. But I would, frankly, say that the Israelis have less influence right now than they could have had, had they played their cards differently. The very, very aggressive tone of Prime Minister Netanyahu, this very clear-cut attempt to try to sabotage the talks, has actually pushed Netanyahu further to the margins and has given him less opportunities to be able to sabotage it. But make no mistake, the Israelis are very much against this deal and are trying to do everything they can to stop it. But there is an air of inevitability right here in Lausanne that something is going to come out of these talks.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, we want to thank you for being with us, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. His book is A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. He’s speaking to us from Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Iran negotiations are taking place. When we come back, we go to Florida. We’ll be joined by former Senator George Mitchell, who is the former envoy under President Obama to the Middle East. We’ll talk about Iran and Israel. Stay with us.

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