Let the Iran Talks Continue

Don't worry about artificial deadlines, people.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Diplomats have always been very good at making up deadlines and then missing them. So it should come as no surprise -- and be no cause for concern -- that the U.S. and other world powers trying to cut a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program may not have a framework agreement by Tuesday, as promised.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

The danger is that some people not party to the talks -- in particular, some members of the U.S. Congress -- may make more of this failure than is warranted. They are threatening to demand the right to review and reject any deal that's struck if no deal is reached within the next couple of weeks, and they may require additional sanctions. The first option would reduce Iran's incentive to make concessions, while the second would violate the terms of the temporary agreement and collapse the diplomatic process.

Like hard-liners in Tehran and U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, these members of Congress oppose any kind of deal with Iran unless it eliminates the country's uranium enrichment program altogether. That's a diplomatic impossibility, as a decade of experience has proved.

So what can a deal be reasonably expected to achieve? It should verifiably limit Iran's fuel program so that racing for a bomb would be too long a sprint to be worth attempting. No agreement can guarantee Iran doesn't get the bomb, but a good one can do a lot better than either sanctions alone or airstrikes.

That's in part why the threat from Congress is counterproductive. It could encourage quick concessions to Iran, leading to the kind of bad deal opponents say they want to prevent. Meanwhile, the sanctions threats add no pressure on Iran: Iranian leaders know perfectly well that if the talks collapse, more sanctions will come.

None of this is to say that the differences between the two sides this week in Switzerland aren't big. Iran reportedly wants an early removal of United Nations sanctions that form the legal bedrock for Iran's economic isolation. No acceptable deal should agree to this demand, because while most commitments Iran makes will be easily reversible, re-imposing UN sanctions could prove impossible.

Iran also recently said it doesn't want to ship its large stocks of enriched uranium out of the country. That's worrying, because the bigger the stocks Iran has, the harder it will be for the U.S. to ensure that it would take Iran at least a year to "break out" and produce enough uranium for a bomb. Also unknown is how tough a verification regime Iran will accept. Unless the West has strong verification powers, a covert "sneak out" by Iran would become too difficult to detect.

There's reason to believe that, with time, Iran can be brought around. The pressure that sanctions impose on its economy is intense. And it will remain so as long as the major powers are united in their belief that Iran is the chief obstacle to agreement. At the same time, opponents of the talks have yet to offer any convincing alternative to sanctions-backed diplomacy that would do more to slow or stop Iran's progress toward a bomb.

As so often is the case in such talks, the most difficult issues have been left for the end. In that sense, the artificial deadline is serving its purpose: sharpening the focus of the diplomats gathered in Switzerland. If a few missed deadlines is the price to be paid for an effective agreement, they will have done their job.

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