Even though both sides in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program remain far apart, it’s valuable to extend talks past the deadline for a few more months to keep working toward a deal.
The world has been better off since the temporary six-month agreement took effect on Jan. 20. 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 from “breakout capacity,” or being able to build a bomb faster than the U.S. could mount a preemptive response.
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?
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed on July 15 that Iran freeze its enrichment capacity at current levels, so long as it could expect to eventually be treated as a normal nuclear power. That 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.
The U.S. and its partners in the so-called P5+1—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K.—should focus on securing an aggressive inspection regime. As Secretary of State John Kerry has noted, the talks with Iran are not meant to build trust (that’s a pipe dream); they’re meant to establish verification.
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.