The White House Isn't in a Hurry on Iran

Thursday is a major congressional deadline, but the White House doesn't seem to be panicking.

Two missed deadlines. And Tuesday, another was set that no one seems confident will stick.

For weeks, the United States has been in intense talks with Iran in an attempt to reach an agreement to halt the country's nuclear proliferation. The initial deadline, June 30, came and went with no deal, as did a second on Tuesday. A new deadline, set for Thursday, brings no guarantee of success.

With Republicans in Congress criticizing the White House's truancy, and the possibility that Congress would have 60 days—rather than 30—to review any deal, how long can the administration wait to reach an agreement with Iran?

The line from the Obama administration has stayed relatively static since Secretary of State John Kerry got to Vienna for the talks: It's holding out for a good deal. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated that on Tuesday, telling reporters that the administration wants to make sure that "every 'I' is dotted, that every 'T' is crossed" in sticking to the broad parameters reached by the countries at an April summit in Switzerland.

"We've been clear that we're only going to accept a good deal that reflects the parameters of the political agreement that was reached back in Lausanne," Earnest told reporters. "That's the kind of agreement that shuts down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon. It's the kind of agreement that ensures that Iran would cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country's nuclear program."

Pushing back the deadline, though, offers more opportunities for Congress to attack it. In response to the missed deadline last week, Sen. and GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio of FLorida charged that the extensions signaled that the administration "has given into Iran's obfuscation and stalling tactics." Other Republican members of Congress have called for the talks to end.

The White House doesn't seem concerned about criticism from Capitol Hill. "We expect that, if we are able to reach a deal, it will stand up to congressional scrutiny," a senior administration official told National Journal.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the U.S. team negotiating with Iran, said "The worst thing to do would be to conclude a deal that doesn't meet U.S. requirements for the sake of some artificial deadline."

"I think the negotiators are doing what Congress would want them to do, which is to say, holding out for a deal that meets U.S. requirements," Einhorn told National Journal. "A deal could have been struck already on June 30 if the U.S. was prepared to give in to Iranian eleventh-hour negotiating tactics. But apparently the negotiators have stood their ground for a deal that meets the White House requirements."

Congress will ultimately judge the deal on just that, he said—the deal. Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who cosponsored legislation allowing congressional review of the agreement, echoed that sentiment Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation.

Urging Kerry to take his time in the negotiating process, Corker said the secretary of State should "try to make sure that these last remaining red lines that haven't been crossed—they've crossed so many—do not get crossed and, qualitatively, they don't make it worse than where it already is."

But Corker's legislation, crafted with Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, could present another obstacle should the talks extend. The bill halved the congressional review period from 60 to 30 days, but only if it's reached by July 9 (hence the new deadline). After that, the review snaps back to 60 days.

"The administration has sought to get it in by July 9 to have only a 30-day review on the assumption that if you give more time for review, then the opponents will have more time to organize," Einhorn said. He said he doesn't buy that argument, though, as proponents of the deal could use the extra time to rally support.

Earnest also pointed out that a 60-day review period would include Congress's August recess, noting that "the 60-day review period may require additional delay, but it doesn't necessarily ensure additional scrutiny. It's not as if Congress is going to spend the entire 60 days studying the agreement."

A deal isn't even assured at these latest negotiations. The administration decided to set deadlines at all, Earnest said Tuesday, to pressure Iran to sign on to a final agreement. And he didn't rule out the possibility of continuing with talks—without any deadline—while keeping the interim deal, which froze Iran's nuclear program, in place. That could render this latest deadline irrelevant—just like the others.