After 17 days of talks and two blown deadlines, the US and five other nations gave themselves until midnight on Monday in Vienna to reach the final terms of an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for rolling back economic sanctions. Iranian media initially reported that an announcement was imminent on Monday evening, but asked later if the deal would indeed be unveiled, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said simply: "No."
US Secretary of State John Kerry has cautioned that the administration's patience is not unlimited. "We are not going to sit at the negotiating table forever," he said.
"If tough decisions are not made, we are absolutely prepared to call an end to this process," he added.
Zarif struck a more hopeful note in a video posted Friday , July 3rd on YouTube. "We are ready to strike a balanced and good deal and open new horizons to address important common challenges," he said.
Since the deal passed Friday's third deadline extension, the skeptical Republican-led Congress will have 60 days — rather than the expected 30 — to review the agreement, which may not bode well for the White House. As Republicans in the US House of Representatives geared up last week for their congressional review of the agreement, they lined up a series of witnesses that foreshadowed a tough struggle for the Obama administration to get any pact through Congress.
At a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Thursday, Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, was blunt in his disapproval of the administration's plan.
"That's a bad deal for us: Permanent concessions in exchange for temporary benefits, and that's only if Iran doesn't cheat, like North Korea did," he said.
"Iran is left a few steps away from the bomb and more able to dominate the region," Royce continued. "How does that make us and our allies more secure? Or conflict less likely?"
'The alternative to a deal would surely mean some kind of military strikes on Iran's nuclear plant.'
The committee had lined up expert witnesses to speak against the negotiations, including Richard Nephew, a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "This is all a political showmanship," Nephew told VICE News.
Stephen G. Rademaker, assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush and current advisor to the Foreign Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, warned that lifting sanctions would only result in more nuclear weapons down the road.
"If it is dangerous today for Iran to be able to produce a single nuclear weapon in just two or three months," he said, "why won't it be even more dangerous for them to be able to produce a much larger number of nuclear weapons in a much shorter period of time beginning just 10 years from now?"
Both Rademaker and Michael Makovsky, chief executive officer of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said that the deal would spur and accelerate other regional countries' pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that the US would also need to monitor what Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other allies might do on the nuclear front.
"The emerging agreement will represent acceptance by the international community of Iran as a nuclear weapons threshold state," Rademaker said.
Even before details of the agreement were announced, Makovsky urged members of Congress "to reject this deal and restore and reinvigorate American leverage to achieve an acceptable deal to prevent a nuclear Iran and reduce the chances of a nuclear contagion cascade and war."
His concern is that it would give Iran "guns and butter," meaning the sanctions relief would give Iran tens of billions of dollars from released funds that would "strengthen this radical and repressive regime and supercharge its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorism."
However, Kenneth M. Pollack, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, had different advice for the committee. "I think the deal is disappointing, but certainly I would not advise you to override the veto, because the alternatives are far worse than this," he said.
Another top House Democrat at the hearing went so far as to say that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the only option.
"The alternative to a deal would surely mean some kind of military strikes on Iran's nuclear plant," New York's Eliot Engel said.
But not everyone thinks military aggression is the best — or only — option.
"They might try to airstrike, but it won't work, that's the problem," Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told VICE News.
Striking the nuclear facilities will only buy Iran more time before the starts building a nuclear weapon, which would lead to a "terrible outcome," he said.
"Bombing will not make [Iran's nuclear program] go away," Lewis said. "The sanction regime will collapse and Iran will build a nuclear weapon.
"I would be desperately open for a deal, because they don't really have a lot of other options," he added.
In April, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded all sanctions be lifted when the deal is signed. In the same month, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he and his cabinet are united in "strongly opposing" an agreement restricting Iran's nuclear program, instead suggesting that the program be completely dismantled. He also demanded that any final deal contain Iran's recognition of Israel's right to exist.
"Israeli security experts have suggested an Israeli military strike could push back Iran's nuclear program three or so years," Makovsky said in his testimony. "US military action, with our greater capability and easier access, would likely push it back further."
But in June, President Barack Obama told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that a military strike wasn't the answer. "A military solution will not fix it, even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program, but it will not eliminate it," he said.
At Thursday's hearing, Texas Representative Ted Poe suggested another scenario. "Iran is the number one terrorist state in the world and we are not dealing with good people," Poe warned. "Regime change is the solution."
Analysts have also expressed concerns about escalation from both Iran and the US if the deal falls apart.
"Iranians will increase and expand their nuclear program, and the US will increase and expand their sanctions program, and the risk of confrontation will grow," Nephew told VICE News. "I think the idea that [the US] is just going to increase sanctions and eventually not go to a military conflict is probably a ridiculous idea."
But the discussions of potential confrontation between the two countries come at a time when the US and Iran share a common enemy: The self-proclaimed Islamic State.
"Our common threat today is the growing menace of violent extremism and outright barbarism," Zarif said in his video. "The menace we are facing… is embodied by the hooded men who are ravaging the cradle of civilization."
But even if there's a meeting of the minds on countering extremism, the drama surrounding the nuclear talks suggests that there won't be a consensus any time soon on the sincerity and reliability of either Iranaian or Western pledges coming from any agreement.
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