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Kerry To Head To Oman As Deadline On Iran Nuclear Deal Nears


November 24 is the deadline for a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions on the country. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says after that date it gets more complicated, in his words. Kerry will be in Oman on Sunday for high-level talks with Iran's foreign minister.

In a moment, why President Obama sent a letter to Iran's supreme leader ahead of those talks. But first, NPR's Peter Kenyon considers one of the complicating factors - growing hostility to nuclear diplomacy as power shifts in Congress.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iran analyst Ali Vaez, with the International Crisis Group, says a complete agreement this month is unlikely. But what may be possible is enough progress to justify keeping the talks going. If the talks aren't wrapped up by the time a new Republican-led Senate is sworn in, however, opponents of a nuclear deal will have a powerful new ally to work with. And their arguments may seem persuasive.

ALI VAEZ: They could argue that if the parties have not been able to reach agreement after a year of comprehensive negotiations, what does another four months or six months add to the process? They might pass new sanctions, so I think the biggest risk - if the talks go beyond November 24 - is that they could be derailed by U.S. Congress.

KENYON: Supporters of the talks point to what's been accomplished since threats of a military strike were replaced by negotiations. The stockpile of Iran's most sensitive nuclear fuel - 20 percent enriched uranium - is gone. And no new centrifuges are spinning away in Iran's nuclear facilities. Critics say those gains could quickly be swamped by new Iranian nuclear progress if negotiators make too many concessions in order to get a deal. Some of those critics are already moving to take advantage of the political realignment in Washington. They are pushing for a vote on a new set of sanctions against Iran.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says if a sanctions vote happens this year, while a lame-duck Democrat-led Senate is in session, President Obama might be able to deal with it. But if it happens in the New Year, with the GOP in charge, a veto-proof sanctions bill is a real possibility with sobering consequences for diplomacy.

MARK FITZPATRICK: If a new sanctions bill is imposed, it's almost certain that Iran would respond by showing defiance, walking away from diplomacy and imposing some additional measures of their own - increasing the number of centrifuges or maybe going back up to 20 percent enriched uranium.

KENYON: Against that increasingly grim backdrop, these talks in Oman and the upcoming round in Vienna will face only the first near impossible task - reaching a nuclear accord. The second task may be just as tough - convincing skeptical audiences in Tehran and Washington to sign off on it. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.