If, as seems apparent, the United States is unable to reach a deal with Iran by Sunday’s deadline to limit that country’s nuclear program, the United States will have three basic alternatives.
We can escalate sanctions in the hope of forcing Iran to see the error of its ways; we can resort to military force, or we can continue to negotiate, even though we don’t have much in the way of tangible progress to show for our efforts.
Extending the negotiations, which the Obama administration seems inclined to do, is the best option, though it’s hardly ideal. It’s preferable in part because allowing the talks to fail would undo November’s interim agreement under which Iran had agreed to temporary restraints on its nuclear progress. Also, the United States and several other nations would almost certainly reimpose sanctions that had been suspended under the agreement. In that event, apart from a military strike that would be more likely to come from Israel than the United States, Iran would redouble efforts in its nuclear program.
The status quo has hardly served U.S. interests or those of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, which also are involved in the talks.
What’s frustratingly unclear is whether continued negotiations can actually lead to an agreement — one that Iran, which has a history of deceit regarding its nuclear activities, will comply with. To their credit, negotiators since November have made progress, though it has been incremental. But among questions that have kept the sides apart are how much uranium enrichment capacity Iran should be permitted and how intrusive inspections should be. Also important is how long Iran’s enrichment capacity should be limited.
Congressional hardliners insist on limiting Iran’s enrichment capacity forever, though that’s unrealistic, and object to any deal as long as Iran remains a “bad actor” in the Middle East.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S. educated Iranian who Secretary of State John Kerry’s counterpart in the talks, has said absolute guarantees don’t exist. He told the New York Times, “Nothing is proliferation-proof in the nuclear field,” though many technologies are “proliferation resistant.”
Mr. Zarif is correct that there are no guarantees. And critics of the administration’s approach have a valid point in contending that the negotiations are little more than a stalling tactic for Iran. Yet it’s naïve to believe that military strikes or sanctions will keep Iran from ever becoming nuclear-armed.
Certainly, negotiations that slow Iran’s progress, if only temporarily, and that could over time lessen the prospect that Iran acquires nuclear weapons are worth continuing.