With the deadline to agree, disagree, or agree to spend more time disagreeing coming up fast (four days away), Reuters is reporting that Iran and the P5+1 are trying to reach an agreement on extending the duration of the talks. November’s Joint Plan of Action allowed an extension of up to six months, which also theoretically means Iran’s nuclear program will stay frozen for the duration, but expect to hear a lot of hooting from the usual suspects in Congress about how this extension will just let Iran get six months closer to building a bomb, or whatever, and dammit can’t we start bombing Iran yet?
It’s hard to see this as a positive development, to be honest. Pushing the deadline another 6 months (assuming they agree to the maximum extension) means that we’ll most likely be right back here in January, because when’s the last time a complicated and adversarial international negotiation ever didn’t go on until the absolute last minute? Why wouldn’t it? Both sides are going to want to use the presumed leverage of a deadline to try to get the best deal they can. There’s no upside in finishing early from a negotiating standpoint. But concluding a deal in January means concluding it under a new Congress, one that could have the Republicans in control of both houses, which might make it even tougher for the US to uphold its end of the deal.
Pessimism aside, President Obama can talk about the “real progress” that’s been made in the talks so far, and there has been real progress…on just about everything except uranium enrichment. On that, neither side has budged very much from where things were in November, when the US finally, tacitly accepted that Iran would have some enrichment capacity when this was all said and done. Are another 6 months going to magically soften either side’s stance? I guess another 6 months of a sluggish economy might let Zarif and Rouhani win Ayatollah Khamenei’s backing for some kind of compromise on enrichment, or might let internal dissension weaken the P5+1’s cohesion, but the former seems like wishful thinking and I’m not sure the latter would really change the situation all that much.
Update: If you believe the “Bomb Bomb Iran” caucus in the House, then Kerry is signaling to them that the administration may now be open to a triggered sanctions bill of the kind that they (rightly, in my view) categorized as war mongering a few months ago. If we’re back to the “punish Iran to force it to the table” stage, then clearly things have taken a major step backward.