How To Muddle Through With Iran

Finding Middle Ground In the Iranian Nuclear Talks

Video cameras are set up prior to a meeting between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, October 14, 2014. Leonhard Foeger / Courtesy Reuters

It is no accident that hardly anyone involved in the Iranian nuclear negotiations has expressed optimism about meeting the November 24 deadline for a comprehensive agreement. The Iranian and U.S. governments are continuing to meet regularly -- most recently last week in Vienna -- but there are few signs of meaningful progress. Indeed, the essence of the deal that has always made most sense -- a rollback of the Iranian nuclear program in return for a rollback of sanctions -- seems increasingly beyond reach. Instead, the Iranians have been insisting on a rollback of the sanctions in return only for limited transparency on their industrial-size nuclear program. But Washington has insisted for a long time that, given Iran’s past violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), limited transparency won’t be enough. Further, it has already stated that it will not accept an industrial-scale program, although it is prepared to agree to a limited-enrichment capability.

So a comprehensive deal by November 24 appears very unlikely. To be sure, the Iranians could make last minute concessions on centrifuges -- their total number, as well as their output -- and the duration of the deal. In return, Washington could make further concessions at the eleventh hour. At this point, although not impossible, that appears the least probable of the outcomes likely to emerge over the next month.


One negotiator from the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) told me that he expects that if there is no agreement before the talks end, the Iranians will take the lid off their program and rapidly ramp up their uranium enrichment program. Tehran would resume enriching uranium at 20 percent, increase its use of next generation centrifuges, and expand its stockpiles of enriched material. This would shrink the so-called break-out time that Iran would require to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium and potentially hide it. And that, in turn, would mean that the United States could no longer be

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