President Barack Obama and officials in Iran have suggested that they will extend current talks about the Islamic State's nuclear program beyond Sunday's deadline if no agreement is reached. It is essential that they do so and that hard-line voices on both sides continue to give negotiators the space they need to find a mutually acceptable deal that offers long-term assurances that Iran will not and cannot develop nuclear weapons.
When the Obama administration agreed to the framework for talks, critics in Congress and in the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a terrible mistake. But six months later, it is impossible to conclude that the interim agreement has been anything but a success, even if it fails to produce a final deal by the deadline. The United States and its allies agreed to suspend some sanctions in exchange for a freeze on Iran's development of its nuclear capability, and by all accounts — even from members of the Israeli government — Iran has honored its commitment. International inspectors have better access to Iran's nuclear facilities, the nation has diluted most of its medium-enriched uranium, and it has agreed to changes to a heavy water reactor among other things. Even if no progress were being made in the negotiations, the interim agreement itself is making the world a safer place.
And even though the two sides remain far apart on some issues, Iran has signaled greater flexibility as the deadline approaches. This week, Iran's American educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, indicated that Iran could accept a deal that freezes its nuclear enrichment capacity at its current level for several years — effectively a continuation of the interim agreement — in exchange for a gradual lifting of sanctions. That's still not enough to satisfy American negotiators, nor should it be; Iran would still potentially have the capacity to produce enough weapons-grade material to produce a bomb in a short time, should it decide later to back out of the deal. But Iran's mere acceptance of limits on its nuclear program — which it insists to be peaceful — is a step in the right direction.
But it's also a step that puts Mr. Zarif and Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani in a more precarious position. Should the talks collapse after Iran made concessions, it would empower the more militant, conservative and anti-Western elements of Iran's government and likely scuttle the chance for any deal in the near future. Mr. Rouhani's moves toward reform and openness were greeted with skepticism in the West when he took office last year, but so far he has largely stayed true to his word. Undermining him at this point would only put the United States and its allies further at risk.
That's why it's essential that Congress continue to give President Obama room to continue negotiations and avoid making demands that would foreclose the possibility of an agreement. Hawkish members of Congress have proposed new sanctions or lists of requirements for a deal — like an improvement in Iran's human rights record or an end to its sponsorship of terrorism — that are perfectly worthy but have nothing to do with the most important matter at hand, which is making sure Iran does not have a nuclear bomb. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland has played an important role in keeping such efforts at bay during the last six months, and we urge him to continue to do so.
Iran's track record gives us plenty of reasons to be skeptical about its intentions, and we are mindful of the potential dangers of any deal. But Iran has demonstrated good faith under the interim deal, and it would be a tremendous mistake to throw that away — particularly at a time when violence and uncertainty in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided a confluence of U.S.-Iranian strategic interests. The risks of continued negotiations are minimal, but the potential benefits — both in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and opening the door for cooperation on other issues — are tremendous.