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Negotiators Work To Sell Skeptics On Iran Nuclear Deal


The day after Iran, the U.S. and other world powers reached an agreement on the outlines of a nuclear deal, the sales pitches have begun. Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, has been promising to bring his country out of isolation, and says this is a first step to better ties with the world. Here in Washington, exhausted negotiators have returned from Switzerland and are now reaching out to skeptics in Congress, in Israel and in the Arab world. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that won't be an easy task.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: While both sides face critics at home, the Iranian negotiators need mainly the blessing of the supreme leader, which would likely quiet the hardliners. And Iran-watcher, Ariane Tabatabai, says that makes it easier for them to sell this deal domestically.

ARIANE TABATABAI: You can't say the same thing for Congress here. You can't say the same thing for the White House. The White House doesn't have that power over its critics.

KELEMEN: And Tabatabai, who teaches at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, says the Obama administration needs to step up its game.

TABATABAI: The White House hasn't been doing a good enough job selling the deal. At the same time, there are people who just don't want the deal to happen regardless.

KELEMEN: The administration says it's in frequent contact with Congress. The president has also reached out to some of the toughest critics abroad, including Saudi King Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees this deal as a threat to his country. Those conversations could not have been easy, says one critic of the Iran deal, Danielle Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute.

DANIELLE PLETKA: I think the problem for the president is that they already mistrust him. He has really achieved one remarkable feat, and that is the he has put the Gulf Arabs and Israel in exactly the same camp.

KELEMEN: President Obama is inviting Gulf Arab allies to Camp David this spring and trying to remind them that a nuclear deal would not erase other U.S. concerns about Iranian behavior in the region. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose plane returned from the talks at 6 A.M. this morning, was on the phone with his Gulf counterparts making that case too. But, Pletka says, the Saudis and others already think the U.S. is siding with Iran in a grand struggle in the Middle East.

PLETKA: You know, they may not be the nicest guys in the world. In fact, you know, the Gulf Arabs have a lot of serious problems, but they're not stupid. And the notion that they should somehow separate these, quote, unquote, "files" is laughable. They live next door to the Iranians. They are victims of Iranian predation.

KELEMEN: Pletka worries that the deal will leave Iran with too much nuclear infrastructure, and that could spark an arms race in the region. But Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation expert with the Arms Control Association, says if a final deal is reached, international inspectors will have unprecedented access to Iran's nuclear program.

KELSEY DAVENPORT: So I think that sends a clear message to countries in the region that this deal will really block the covert pathway to nuclear weapons.

KELEMEN: Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Davenport says she sees the upcoming Camp David summit as key to reassuring Gulf allies. She also sees the limits to Iran's nuclear program as a good selling point for the White House and Congress. There are still many who say Iran can't be trusted at all. For them, Columbia University scholar, Gary Sick, has this story. He was on President Carter's national security staff and negotiated the agreement that ended the hostage crisis. Shortly after, a skeptical President Reagan came to office.

GARY SICK: He quietly observed the agreement. And it has been agreed to and observed by five successive presidents. And it has been meticulously observed by Iran. And, by the way, just for the record, this was never submitted to Congress.

KELEMEN: Congress is insisting on weighing in this time around, and the White House will need lawmakers eventually to lift sanctions if Iran agrees to a final deal and keeps its commitments. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.