After long and intense negotiations, the so-called P5-plus-1 nations (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) and Iran finally agreed to extend the deadline for their ongoing talks until July 1. This was the second time both sides needed to extend the deadline since the conclusion of an interim agreement in January called the Joint Plan of Action, which keeps Iran from installing new centrifuges or increasing its stockpile of uranium. In both extensions, negotiators decided to stick to their ambitious goal of achieving a comprehensive agreement. It is, however, highly questionable whether this goal is achievable.
The main bone of contention is Iran's enrichment capacities. Tehran has about 19,000 centrifuges, half of which are currently enriching uranium. It has a stockpile of more than 8,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. The United States, with the support of its partners within the P5-plus-1, has insisted that this leaves Iran unacceptably close to being able to build a nuclear device and has called for hugely decreasing Iran's enrichment capacities. Iran, however, has consistently refused to dismantle any of its centrifuges and even seeks to advance its nuclear program in the near future. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly said that Iran needs a nuclear program about 10 times as big as the present one.
Iranian offers to freeze the nuclear program for only a few years — so that it can be rapidly expanded thereafter — are unacceptable to the P5-plus-1. Other disagreements add to the stalemate. For instance, Iran pledged to collaborate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to disclose some highly suspicious activities that were apparently part of a secret weapons program. But it failed to provide any helpful information before a deadline in late August.
Recent developments also seem to have stiffened the backs of Iranian decision-makers. The rise of the militant group Islamic State has been a huge distraction for the Obama administration. The Iranian leadership appears to see its influence in Iraq and Syria as leverage to bargain for U.S. concessions. On the economic front, the work of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's team of technocrats seems to be paying off. According to the most recent estimates, the Iranian economy is starting to stabilize and may stop contracting soon.
Finally, Rouhani, who promised to engage the international community to end sanctions, faces internal political pressure to deliver. This puts Khamenei in an excellent position. By opposing any effort to meaningfully compromise with the United States, he can force the Rouhani administration to drive a hard bargain without getting the blame if that approach fails.
Against this backdrop, the United States should not expect Iran to make the compromises required to broker a comprehensive agreement anytime soon. The key challenge is to embark on a new strategy.
Washington might walk away from the talks to tighten sanctions, as some hawks have suggested. This approach, however, would hardly work since there would not be enough international support for weakening Iran's increasingly stable economy. Some pundits have suggested that the only alternatives to stepping up economic pressure are accepting Iran's nuclear ambitions and the use of military force, but this is a misconceived view.
Despite the seemingly grueling outlook, there is some good news. Iran still has every incentive not to be perceived as a spoiler (which would all but guarantee a new wave of crippling sanctions) and has indicated its willingness to compromise on some aspects other than the above-mentioned bones of contention. This suggests that the joint plan, which Iran has complied with so far, can be expanded. In exchange for modest American concessions such as slightly expanding Iranian access to frozen assets or a minimal increase in Iran's oil exports, Tehran might very well agree to some additional restrictions on its nuclear program.
More specifically, Iran might reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and suspend R&D enrichment practices (which are not covered by the joint plan). This approach would address the negotiators' need to prove that progress can be made and that the ongoing talks are in the interest of both sides.
Skeptics might argue that expanding the joint plan would give Iran the opportunity to undermine sanctions, but modest sanctions relief is unlikely to weaken the overall sanctions regime. The joint plan has not undermined the existing sanctions. And there would be pressure on Iran to comply with an expanded agreement since cheating probably would be met with renewed sanctions. Unlike the alternative scenarios, this approach would buy some additional time and keep Iran in check.
While far from perfect, this is the best option the United States has.
Sven-Eric Fikenscher is a research fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
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