This week, Iranian and U.S. diplomats raced to Geneva for unscheduled, high-level bilateral talks. The news might have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have. The deadline to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran -- July 20 -- is fast approaching, and the parties still have significant differences to overcome. In particular, unless Tehran changes its tune on the all-important issue of uranium enrichment, and does so soon, the prospects for a peaceful diplomatic solution are nil.
Five months ago, Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) reached an interim nuclear agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which froze and then modestly rolled back Tehran’s nuclear program. The JPOA was designed to buy time for both sides to negotiate a final accord that would ensure that Iran would not weaponize its nuclear program. Iran and the P5+1 have made some real progress since then, but they remain very far apart on the critical issue of enrichment: the process of purifying uranium to produce fuel for nuclear reactors and, potentially, atomic bombs.
The Obama administration and its negotiating partners are demanding that Iran substantially roll back its enrichment capacity. The purpose, U.S. officials say, is to extend Iran’s breakout capacity -- defined as the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon -- from about two months, where it sits today, to at least a year. The longer it takes Iran to make one bomb, the thinking goes, the more its leaders will be deterred from building one, and the more time the international community would have to discover and stop the process if they aren’t deterred. Outside analysis, including from some former U.S. officials, suggests that a somewhat shorter breakout cushion, perhaps even six months, may be enough. In either case, Iran would have to scale back its nuclear program from 19,000 centrifuges (10,000 of which