Iran talks extended, which is, um, not the absolute worst possible outcome?

As was almost universally expected by the weekend, today’s deadline for resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program failed to produce anything more than an extension of talks through the end of June, 2015. It seems that even with the Russian uranium compromise that was floated a couple of weeks ago (which for all we know may have gone nowhere), the Iranians and the P5+1 could still not reach an agreement over Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, and the issue of how quickly sanctions would be lifted was never close to being resolved. The IAEA’s determination that Iran is hiding aspects of a past military nuclear program was probably also a major stumbling block, though the IAEA’s work in this regard has been highly problematic of late.

According to U.K. foreign secretary Philip Hammond, technical talks will resume next month and the principals will meet again sometime after the new year. Iran will get $700 million in assets unfrozen per month as part of the extension.

So the new timetable calls for the negotiating partners to reach a “political agreement” (i.e., consensus on all the headline issues: sanctions, inspections, Arak, enrichment, and so forth) by March 1, giving the sides another four months to craft the technical terms of the final document. This seems, ah, a bit optimistic? John Kerry insisted that “substantial progress” was made in this last round of talks in Vienna, but from the outside it’s hard to see where or how that could be. If the reports that the U.S. had raised its centrifuge threshold from 1000 to somewhere in the 4000-6000 neighborhood are accurate, then this round of talks broke down in part over the status of about 3000 centrifuges. If such a measly amount of enrichment capacity is still enough to sink this deal, perhaps because Iranian negotiators don’t have the go-ahead from Tehran to agree to any decrease in enrichment capacity, then maybe there’s no deal to be had. Likewise on sanctions relief, it’s hard to see where to do if the Iranians are really insisting on full lifting of all sanctions as soon as they sign an agreement. That’s not going to happen. In fact, given U.S. political constraints, with a Senate that’s going to try to sabotage even the extension of talks at the first chance it gets, it can’t happen.

In the end, a simple extension of the talks without even some announcement of a basic framework for an agreement is a failure, regardless of how the principals want to portray it. It’s the definition of the “least bad” outcome, since a full collapse of the talks would actually be worse, but you can’t spin this as a success. The dispute about Iran’s nuclear program has been going on for over 12 years, and right now it’s hard to see what another 3 months are going to accomplish. The U.S. is probably hoping that a few more months of sanctions plus low oil prices will put Tehran in more of an accommodating mind, but it’s probably going to take more than 3 months to get to that point. Likewise, if the Iranians are betting on cracks forming within the P5+1, encouraging more flexibility on America’s part, it’s unlikely that they’re going to see that by March 1.

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