Once again, intense negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have failed to produce a deal, but there remains some reason for optimism after the weekend's high-level negotiations in Geneva. The last time such talks fell apart, the issue had been the unwillingness of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to approve an agreement forged by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This time, the disagreement was among the United States and its allies about what kind of terms were acceptable, and that suggests the possibility for progress under Iran's new and relatively moderate President Hasan Rowhani is real, if still difficult.
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Switzerland to join the talks Friday morning, there were still important gaps between the two sides, particularly over an Iranian facility designed to produce plutonium, for which the nation has no conceivable peaceful use. Moreover, differences between the legal architecture of (and political support for) sanctions in the United States and Europe made it difficult to find a way to provide some relief to Iran while retaining the option that they could be tightened if Iran fails to live up to the agreement.
The goal of the talks was not a final settlement of issues over Iran's nuclear program but rather an interim deal that would halt Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon for at least six months while a more comprehensive diplomatic resolution was being hammered out. The general terms of the proposed accord were an immediate freeze on uranium enrichment by Iran, along with promises not to build new centrifuges for that purpose, in exchange for the United States' agreement to unfreeze about $50 billion in Iranian assets held in overseas banks for the government in Tehran to use. That would have allowed the United States to maintain the core of its sanctions regime intact until a final agreement is reached. France, Britain and Germany, however, face political situations in which sanctions would be easier to drop but more difficult to reinstate than they are in the United States, where Congress remains generally skeptical of Iran's motives.
Given Iran's previous insistence that it would never give up its "right" to enrich uranium, its willingness to suspend such activity in order to make a deal with the United States might reflect a change by Ayatollah Khamenei. It has become evident that the sanctions are truly crippling Iran, and Mr. Rowhani's election was largely based on a promise to make progress on economic issues. That would be impossible to achieve without a thawing of relations with the international community.
Negotiations are set to resume in 10 days, though at a lower level, and the two sides in Geneva at least talked a good game about the progress they had made so far and the prospects for a future deal. But there are risks of backlash on both sides.
The mere prospect of better relations between the United States and Iran has alarmed American allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its principal rival for influence in the region, and Israel, which views any scenario that allows Iran to retain the technical infrastructure to build a bomb as a mortal threat.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rowhani still faces resistance from conservative clerics and elements of Iran's military, who can be counted on to resist any accommodation with the U.S. and its allies in the region. But the fact that it was the West that walked away from this deal may actually bolster Mr. Rowhani's position at home and provide him more latitude in future talks.
Time is running short for a diplomatic solution. The plutonium reactor could be operational within about a year, and once it is, it may be impossible to disable through a military strike, at least without creating an ecological disaster. But Iran's leaders must also recognize that the closer they get to producing a bomb, the less likely it will be that they can rejoin the community of nations. A resolution of Iran's nuclear program would potentially open the door to the renewal of diplomatic relations, trade and cultural exchanges that could end that country's pariah status and it bring back into the community of nations, while the alternative is continued sanctions, a destabilized Mideast and the ever-present threat of war.
If there is any good that came from the failed talks in Geneva, it's a sense that Iran's leaders may have decided the latter is not a path they want to take. Neither Iran nor the West can allow this setback to derail the effort at diplomacy altogether because it is increasingly clear that the alternatives are much worse for all sides.
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