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The announcement today that the U.S. and Iran have agreed to extend talks over Tehran's disputed nuclear program is far short of what we might have hoped for. But the extension can't be counted as a failure either. If the goal is to keep up the pressure on Iran's leaders to reach a deal, keeping the talks going was the least bad alternative for Western negotiators.

With discussions scheduled to resume in December, everything is on hold for the moment, which works to the advantage of the U.S. and its partners. Western economic sanctions are still in place, Iran's uranium enrichment program remains suspended, and international inspectors are still on the ground monitoring the country's nuclear sites. In short, the pressure is still on Iran to reach a deal. Among the sticking points still on the table is how many centrifuges Iran can have to continue enriching uranium that could be used to build a bomb. Iran, which insists its nuclear program is purely peaceful, wants to keep as many as 20,000 of the machines to supply its electric power reactors and produce medical isotopes for hospitals. The U.S. and its allies say that's far more than the country needs for those purposes and wants a limit of 4,000 or less.

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Another outstanding issue is the timetable for easing sanctions after an agreement is reached and limits on how long any deal would remain in effect. Iran wants sanctions lifted as quickly as possible and for the agreement to run no more than three years. The U.S. and its partners want to phase out sanctions in stages tied to Iran's compliance with specific benchmarks, and it wants the agreement to remain in effect over a period of decades to ensure that Iran doesn't restart its nuclear program or launch a sudden breakout aimed at building a bomb.

The decision to keep talking should also come as a relief to U.S. allies in the region. Before the extension was even officially announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised it as better than a flawed agreement or no deal at all. Israel wants a total ban on Iranian uranium enrichment, but that appears unlikely at this point. What does appear possible is an inspection regime that would give the world ample warning if Iran cheated on the agreement. In that case all bets presumably would be off about what the Israel or the U.S. might do.

The Sunni Muslim governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Arab states are just as aware of the stake they have in continued negotiations. All of them fear Shiite Iran's growing influence in the region and the threat it poses to their own regimes. If Iran were to develop the bomb they could feel compelled to build their own nuclear deterrents, setting off a dangerous arms race in one of the most volatile regions on earth. That would be a headache not only for the U.S. and partners but for the whole world.

There's no guarantee that even with an extension of the talks the U.S. will ultimately be able to forge an agreement with Tehran that both sides can live with. But there's cause for optimism. The price of oil has dropped sharply over the last year, and that makes the current economic sanctions against Iran bite more deeply. The country, which is heavily dependent on oil revenues to maintain living standards, needs oil prices to remain around $140 a barrel in order to stay afloat. But prices today are hovering around $80 a barrel and could go even lower, especially if the Saudis keep increasing production in order to put the squeeze on Iran's ability to pay its bills.

Whether any of those factors ultimately will move Iran's Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, to make the additional concessions needed to seal an agreement remains anyone's guess. But the fact that the talks haven't yet failed outright and that two sides are reported to have made important but unspecified "progress" in recent days is at least cause for hope that the remaining outstanding issues can be resolved.

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