Iran Talks Missed the Deadline. Good.

Sometimes the status quo is a winner.

Photographer: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Talks over Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program will continue past tonight's deadline and run well into next year, it has been announced. Failure to reach an agreement is a shame, but not the worst thing that could have happened. As failures go, in fact, this one is almost a success.

Iran's Nuclear Program

The temporary agreement struck a year ago, which stays in place as the talks continue, is much better for the U.S. and its partners than it is for Iran -- something the new U.S. Congress should keep in mind next year. Almost all of the sanctions remain in place, and the most worrying aspects of Iran's nuclear program stay frozen. This stasis can't be extended indefinitely -- but one might almost wish it could be.

Iran has submitted to a more stringent nuclear inspection regime than any other country; it has stopped all production of 20 percent enriched uranium and eliminated stocks of the fuel, which could be quickly enriched further to weapons grade; and it has not installed new centrifuges to expand enrichment capacity.

Previously, the so-called breakout time for the building of an Iranian nuke was getting shorter with each passing month. Predictions that Iran wouldn't comply, or that partial sanctions relief would undermine the whole system, proved wrong. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time called the temporary agreement a "historic mistake," welcomed today's extension.  

The talks are expected to continue for at least four more months. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was vague on details, but said Iran won't get stepped-up relief in exchange for talking longer. On that basis, it's hard to argue when he says, "we would be fools to walk away."

Ending the talks would free the U.S. to apply additional sanctions. The trouble is, the most effective restrictions have been imposed by the European Union, which does far more business with Iran. Europe's support for sanctions would fade if it thought the U.S. was ending diplomatic efforts prematurely. In any event, tighter sanctions would probably lead Iran to abandon the talks. What then? Iran would restart nuclear fuel production as fast as it could. Airstrikes remain an option -- but not one that the U.S. (or Israel) is keen to use.

Sadly, the process can't be frozen indefinitely. Already, there are loud complaints in Iran than its negotiators gave away too much a year ago. And it's in the nature of sanctions that they get leaky the longer they continue. At some point, therefore, there will have to be a lasting deal. For now, though, the temporary agreement is better than none. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.