With less than a month to go before negotiators for the U.S and its partners are supposed to reach a deal limiting Iran's nuclear program, the talks appear to have stalled over Tehran's resistance to allowing inspectors to visit Iranian military bases and other sites to verify compliance with any agreement. A robust inspection regime has been key to the talks from the beginning in order to ensure Iran doesn't secretly try to build a weapon. If Tehran starts backing away from that bedrock principle now, it could torpedo months of difficult negotiations and most likely scuttle any chance of an accord.
Why Iran's negotiators have chosen now to put up this roadblock is a mystery. One possibility is that it could simply be a ploy to extract additional concessions during the final stages of negotiations from the so-called P5+1 countries — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — that are participating in the talks. Yet it's unclear what sort of concessions the Iranians might be demanding now, given that the framework agreement announced in March was supposed to have laid out a road map for the parties to follow in order to reach a final accord. Intrusive inspections and unfettered access to Iran's suspected nuclear sites were plainly part of that formula.
On the other hand, Iran's stiffening position could stem from a rift between reformists in the government who want to end Iran's international diplomatic isolation and the sanctions that have crippled its economy, and hard-line clerics and military commanders who oppose any rapprochement with the West. If the latter thought they were gaining the upper hand, they might not hesitate to deliberately blow up the talks and push Iran into a military confrontation with the U.S. and its allies. In recent weeks they've apparently been encouraged by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's remarks suggesting he would never allow foreigners into Iran's military bases.
Yet Iranian leaders surely must know the U.S. will never agree to lift economic sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal that prevents Iran from building a bomb unless it is convinced Tehran will abide by its commitments. That means an inspections and verification regime that permits international monitors to make surprise visits to any site in the country where nuclear-related activity is occurring. U.S. and Western diplomats have gone to great lengths to seek a face-saving way for Iran to allow that to happen without giving the impression that it is completely capitulating to foreign meddling by hostile powers. But in the end it's been obvious all along that the U.S. demand that Iran be completely transparent about its nuclear activities was non-negotiable.
Even if President Barack Obama were for some reason inclined to accept the Iranian position on inspections — and there's no indication he would — Congress would never go for it. Lawmakers could refuse to lift the sanctions enacted by Congress that the president can't end on his own authority, and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers and the American people almost certainly would support them. We can't imagine Mr. Obama is so eager to accept a bad deal that he'd be willing to risk political suicide for his party over the issue with the 2016 presidential elections less than 18 months away.
The bottom line is that Iran can't have it both ways. It can't expect to reap the benefits of an end to sanctions while continuing to stonewall international efforts to prevent it from building a bomb. That's not in anyone's interest except the hard-liners in Tehran. If they can't be persuaded of that, the U.S. and its partners may have no other choice than to walk away from the talks and seek other means to curtail Iran's nuclear program. Mr. Obama has said that all options remain on the table, including military force. If would be a tragedy if things came to that, but it remains to be seen whether Iran's leaders will realize how dangerous a game they are playing before it's too late.