Sunday's deadline for a deal on Iran's nuclear program will not be met, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pretty much acknowledged today. So, are the negotiations worth extending?
That's an easy call. Even though the two sides remain far apart, it's valuable to keep the talks going for a few more months to keep working toward a deal. Such an extension was anticipated in the six-month-old temporary agreement that made the talks possible, and so far there's been no suggestion that the Iranians will demand new sanctions relief in exchange for more time at the table.
The world has been better off since the temporary agreement was reached. Iran has complied fully with requirements that it halt production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and has converted 80 percent of its stock of the fuel to less threatening forms. As a result, Iran is further than it would have been from achieving a "breakout" capacity that would allow it build a bomb faster than the U.S. could mount a pre-emptive response.
True, Iran got about $7 billion in sanctions relief in return for these concessions, and its breakout time remains an uncomfortably short three to four months. (The U.S. would like it to be at least a year.) Nevertheless, the sanctions regime has not fallen apart; Iran's economy remains under pressure. And the alternative to diplomacy -- watching Iran ramp up production again -- remains terrible.
The harder question is whether more time can produce a deal. In the past half year, negotiators have by all accounts made progress, but at least three crucial questions remain unresolved: How much uranium enrichment capacity should Iran be allowed to have? For how long should that capacity be limited? And how intrusive should the inspection regime be?
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, caused a stir when he said in a recent speech that Iran needs 190,000 centrifuges to create fuel for its nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The U.S. insists that Iran cut in half its current centrifuge capacity of roughly 20,000. The gap between them is huge -- but perhaps not unbridgeable.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed today that Iran would freeze its enrichment capacity at current levels, so long as it could expect to eventually be treated as a normal nuclear power. The merits of that position have been thrashed out in the responses to a recent paper co-written by the former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian. It argues for a five-year deal, expiring just before the end of Iran's current contract to buy Russian nuclear fuel for the civilian power plant at Bushehr. At that point, Iran would use Khamenei's 190,000 centrifuges to make its own fuel.
Zarif's approach ignores the history of Iranian deception that made these talks necessary. In just a few years, Iran would not yet be a "normal" nuclear power, yet it would be able to produce weapons-grade fuel for one or more bombs in a matter of weeks. Nor does the paper address the risk that Iran might build new covert facilities. The U.S. nuclear experts Graham Allison and Oren Setter recently warned that a negotiated deal might defend against the acknowledged threat, yet leave the door open for Iran to build nuclear weapons secretly.
The U.S. and its partners in the so-called P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. -- should fixate less on Iran's number of centrifuges, and more on securing an aggressive inspection regime. Monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency should be able to ensure not only that Iran sticks to its obligations at known production facilities, but also that other sites are not used for a covert program.
As Kerry has noted, the nuclear talks with Iran are not meant to build trust (that's a pipe dream); they're meant to establish verification. Other elements of a potential agreement -- such as minimizing stockpiles of low-enriched uranium available for processing to weapons grade -- could then be used to lengthen Iran's breakout period.
This approach should make it easier for both sides to compromise on the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to run.
Any deal was always going to be tough to negotiate. Critics should acknowledge that not even harsher sanctions or airstrikes could guarantee that Iran never gets the bomb. Talks that freeze Iran's enrichment program for now, and that could in the long term minimize the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, are surely worth a few more months.
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