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With Iran interim deal settled, what challenges lie ahead for a permanent fix?

January 13, 2014 at 6:40 PM EST
The U.S. and Iran have finally settled on the details of an interim nuclear deal, with talks for a final agreement slated for February. Gwen Ifill talks to chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner about diplomatic relations going forward with Iran, including the Syrian peace efforts and pressure on Capitol Hill for sanctions.
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GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to discuss the challenges facing the Iran nuclear deal and the country’s involvement in Syria is chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

Margaret, we were talking about this in November, this big deal. They finally have agreed to something. What is different? What is important now?

MARGARET WARNER: I think what’s important, Gwen, is, as you said, in November, it’s easy — it’s not easy — it was very difficult to get a deal after marathon negotiations, but really, as they say, the devil is in the details.

And the parties clearly were determined to work out all these complicated technical — technical aspects of how verification would work, who would take what step first. I think that the cautionary element here is that it was thornier than they expected. It was more complicated than they expected.

At one point, the Iranians staged a mini-walkout. And so it suggests that getting the big comprehensive deal is going to be tough. Still, I think what is most important is, it is a real milestone. And if the administration had failed to get this deal, it would have been “Katy, bar the door”  on Capitol Hill with this pressure for sanctions.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and there is still pressure on Capitol Hill. The Iranians, as you pointed out, walked away. They have pressure at home as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Which is the — which is the most pressing pressure, I guess?

MARGARET WARNER: I think it’s pressure on both presidents, actually.

And, certainly, on Capitol Hill, this agreement announcement yesterday didn’t appear to have changed the battle lines. You had Eric Cantor, the majority — House majority leader, saying, well, it does nothing but cement a bad deal; further, it’s a deeply flawed deal.

And the 60 senators, as you mentioned, are close to, have signed up for this. And the administration is hoping to forestall it even being introduced. So, at least now they can argue the program is frozen.

GWEN IFILL: They must be worried. The president brought that statement we just saw up unprompted today in this meeting on an unrelated issue. He wanted to say this is not something we should do.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, he really wanted to say it.

And yesterday, Gwen, there was a briefing by State Department officials, a backgrounder on the phone. And it was ostensibly to discuss all these technical aspects, but really constantly the participants kept pounding home this same message. If it is brought to the floor, which they hope to forestall, then what they are really looking at is trying to get a veto-proof margin.

GWEN IFILL: Iran is central to so much. John Kerry is in Paris preparing to go to Montreux, Switzerland, to talk of perhaps Syrian peace talks. And Iran could be the fly in the ointment there as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, there is huge pressure.

I mean, you wonder what to make of this tough talk from Kerry. The fact is, the pressure is on. Next week is the conference. And Iran is proving a hurdle, because the U.N. and the Russians — I think you pointed out about the U.N. — want them involved, saying, look, Iran has influence with Assad like nobody else other than the Russians.

But the U.S. doesn’t want Iran in the — sort of in the mix if they won’t agree to at least the sort of underlying principle that this conference was convened on, which is this terrain to transition. So I also think it relates to the nuclear issue, in that the Saudis who already have their nose out of joint about the Iran issue, our allies, really don’t want Assad and Syria — I mean, don’t want Iran in the Syria game.

As you know, both those countries have opposing forces on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: And — but when you talk about Iran’s influence on Syria, we’re not just talking about diplomatic influence or friendship. We’re talking about weapons, arms.

MARGARET WARNER: Weapons, arms, and by most intelligence estimates, hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guard actual fighters, really good troops on the ground there, as well as, of course, as Kerry pointed out, Hezbollah, for which Iran is a major patron.

So the U.S. has a lot of problems with what Iran is doing in Syria right now.

GWEN IFILL: And how much does the U.S. have riding on coming up what — it feels like, as if there are balls in the air, any one of which, the nuclear deal or the Syrian peace talks, could crash to ground and ruin everything, spill over everything else.

MARGARET WARNER: I think, Gwen, that is why the administering has decided not to tie the two together, because the Obama administration, the number one priority is stopping this nuclear program. That’s the thing that is a threat to the U.S. That is the thing that is potentially a threat to allies in the region like Israel.

And so — and also it offers an opportunity for a cleaner victory. I mean, there is at least the prospect of a legacy-producing deal. It’s at least in sight. Whatever happens in Syria, the outcome is going to be very messy. It’s not going to be pretty. The war is not going to end any time soon.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, of course, the Obama administration, the president is on the hook potentially to intervene militarily if the Iranian nuclear deal should fail and Iran should resume its pell-mell pursuit. They’re — he’s not obligated like that in Syria.

GWEN IFILL: But this pause deal is just for six months.

MARGARET WARNER: Just for six months.

GWEN IFILL: And it is a very steep uphill battle to get to the next step.

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely, as the negotiations for this pause deal showed.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.