More time for a deal with Iran

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program did not meet their July deadline. Yet, in a sign that the failure is not terminal, talks were extended for four more months. By all indications, an agreement is not imminent. The readiness to persevere, however, suggests that optimism is not misplaced. There has been tangible progress.

The biggest question, however, is how developments elsewhere will affect the negotiations.

Iran and six other governments — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) and Germany; usually referred to as “the P5-plus-1″ — have been meeting since last November in an effort to reach an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program. A lack of transparency about that program and the steady drip of revelations has fueled fears that Tehran seeks a nuclear weapons capability.

Iran’s insistence that it harbored no such ambitions and had the right to the use of peaceful nuclear technology pushed the West to impose crippling sanctions on Iran. A standoff ensued, one that Western and Israeli analysts worried was facilitating an Iranian breakout.

Last year’s election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, to the Iranian presidency opened the door to a renewed diplomatic effort. An interim arrangement struck last year provided some relief for the struggling Iranian economy: Some $6 billion in sanctions were lifted while Iran “neutralized” — converted to fuel for a research reactor that makes medical isotopes — uranium that it had enriched to 20 percent purity.

Six rounds of talks followed, the last of which began earlier this month. Unfortunately the sides could not reach a deal by the July 20 deadline.

Noting that progress has been made, the parties agreed to a new deadline, four months away, to close an agreement. Meanwhile, Iran agreed to continue the “neutralization” process while the West would give Tehran access to an additional $2.8 billion in frozen assets. The broader sanctions framework remains in place, however.

Reportedly the negotiations are held up over three longstanding issues: the size of Iran’s future enrichment program, how long a final agreement will last, and the pace at which the sanctions will be lifted. Iran now has about 20,000 centrifuges, half of which are in operation, which are the key to the uranium enrichment program.

Even though Iran says it does not seek to build a bomb, experts cannot otherwise explain Tehran’s desire to ultimately have nearly 200,000 centrifuges. For critics, a program of that scale could only be used to make weapons grade uranium. The U.S. would permit Iran to have only 2,000.

Iran’s refusal to bow to Western demands may seem inexplicable — if it does not harbor nuclear ambitions, then why not accede to those limits? — but pride is a powerful factor in international negotiations. Iran has stood up to the West, and the U.S. in particular, since 1979; that fierce nationalism is a driving force in its domestic politics. Politics in Iran remains deeply divided and factionalized, and Rouhani cannot be indifferent to an opposition that demands absolute protection of Iranian sovereign rights.

Still, all sides admit that progress has been made and negotiations should continue. Trust and good faith are being built.

As the talks proceed, events outside negotiations could intervene. Three in particular could have an impact on the talks. The first is hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has been one of the most vocal and skeptical critics of Iranian behavior, and there have been fears that failure to reach a deal or freeze the Iranian program could force Tel Aviv to attempt a unilateral strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The fact that Israel is now focused on the conflict with Hamas should lessen pressure from that direction.

The second outside factor is the situation in Ukraine and the degree to which Russian President Vladimir Putin becomes the target of Western anger for the tragedy unfolding there. If the West ratchets up pressure on Moscow and vilifies Putin, particularly in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, there is a chance he will play spoiler and undermine the negotiations in response.

The third factor is U.S. elections that will be held just before the final round of talks concludes. Any negotiation with Iran is unpopular in the U.S. — a hangover from the 1979 embassy seizure — and a GOP victory in that ballot, coupled with seemingly automatic Republican opposition to anything President Barack Obama does, means that any deal would have a hard time securing congressional approval.

In theory, Obama could call this an executive agreement rather than a treaty, and sidestep congressional approval, but that would be an equally contentious move. And it might not even work as any deal will need to lift sanctions, and Congress will demand a say in that process.

While a deal remains possible, it remains tantalizing beyond the negotiators’ reach. That is every reason to persevere. Events elsewhere in the world should remind us — and the key decision makers in Tehran and elsewhere — of the exceptionally high price of failure.