After nearly three weeks of round-the-clock negotiations to achieve a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, the United States, joined by its major allies Britain, France and Germany, as well as Russia and China — the P5+1 — chose to extend the current agreement for four months and continue negotiations.
Skeptics in both the U.S. and Iran have already started accusing each other of negotiating in bad faith and seeking only to buy time. Some in the U.S. Congress are even trying to pass legislation that will torpedo the diplomatic process.
They are wrong. There are many reasons it was a wiser choice to extend these talks rather than quit and go home.
First, the talks were deadlocked mostly as a result of brinkmanship that stemmed from the looming July 20 deadline. Each party had put out maximalist opening gambits, dug its heels in and hoped that the other side would budge at the 11th hour. Each also incorrectly assumed that the other was desperate for a deal. Thus, no one blinked. With that miscalculation behind them, the parties can now pursue a more realistic, clear-eyed approach.
Second, the U.S. and Iran were smart not to be pressured into quickly concluding a bad deal, because ultimately only a good deal will be sustainable in the long run. It is preferable that negotiators take time to work through an accord’s complicated technical and political aspects and ensure that its implementation be as smooth as possible. It is better to continue negotiating than for a deal to ultimately collapse because the parties were rushed by an arbitrary deadline.
In addition, more time could help the main stakeholders, Iran and the U.S., prepare their people for a compromise. In the past few weeks, both sides publicly postured in order to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table. But with no agreement achieved, they only diminished their room for maneuvering. They must now walk back from the less realistic positions they took during their brinksmanship — lest domestic politics trump their national interests and nonproliferation norms.
The fact that the process continues despite such major obstacles testifies to the parties’ desire to reach agreement. But while political will is essential, it is not enough. If Iran continues to insist that it wants to retain and eventually increase its enrichment capacity and the P5+1 insist that Tehran should roll back and constrain its program for decades, talks will go nowhere. Iran should show more flexibility on reducing its enrichment program in the agreement’s early phases, when its fuel needs would still be minimal, in return for flexibility on allowing the program’s gradual growth. Increases could be pegged to objective measures, such as the amount of time that the United Nations nuclear watchdog requires to give Iran’s nuclear program a clean bill of health. Instead of trying to force the other side to agree with their fixed positions, negotiators should strive to broaden available options, a process that needs time.
Finally, extending the talks is much better than the alternatives: a return to an escalating cycle of more sanctions and more centrifuges, an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran. At the very least, a breakdown now would reduce the chance of success later, as it would erode trust, discredit politicians who are deeply invested in diplomacy and harden positions.
The region and the world are better off thanks to the interim agreement that Iran and the world powers signed last year. The parties, despite the extra time added to the clock, might not be able to reach a compromise that protects everyone’s core interests, contains Iran’s nuclear program and rehabilitates the country’s economy and international standing. But with the costs of failure and the benefits of success so high, they should stay on the field.