With Monday’s news that negotiators have agreed to extend talks over Iran’s nuclear program for seven more months, expect everyone to feel that their positions have been vindicated. Yes, there was no deal in place by Monday’s deadline, but supporters of an agreement will say that progress is progress, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, and continued negotiations, however frustrating, are worth it if there’s even a sliver of a chance of a deal. Or there’s the reaction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he approved of the extension since “the deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible.”
Meanwhile, conservative critics in both Washington and Tehran will see this as a sign that the other side was never serious about compromising, and will decry the negotiators for failing to reach an agreement that they would probably have opposed anyway.
The sides still seem far apart on the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain, when sanctions will end, and how long and intrusive international inspections will be. Even so, it counts as progress that all parties, including Israel, find the current status quo better than the state of affairs before last November, when an interim accord was reached and this negotiating process began. It hasn’t been that long since airstrikes on Iran seemed like a real and imminent possibility.
In the meantime, the economic pressure on Iran will continue to grow, while the country’s nuclear program—at least, as far as we know—remains frozen. (An IAEA report issued Monday found that Iran is in compliance with the interim agreement reached last year.)
On the other hand, the window for a real agreement won’t stay open forever and the longer the talks last, the more opportunities their opponents will have to derail them. Obama’s ability to promise Iran sanctions relief without the support of Congress was slightly dubious even before Republicans retook the Senate. Earlier this month, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker tried unsuccessfully to force a vote on a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran if an agreement wasn’t reached by today. More such measures from Congress can be expected next year, and it’s going to be tough for the White House to continue deflecting them without demonstrable progress from the talks.
Over in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have already been under pressure from hard-liners who charge them with trying to sell out the country’s interests for sanctions relief. It’s also still an open question whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would approve a final deal.
Rouhani came into office promising to bolster the country’s economy by improving relations with the West. Despite last year’s agreement, he has little to show for that promise. In 2016, elections will be held for both the country’s parliament and the assembly of experts that will choose the 78-year-old Supreme Leader’s successor. It seems likely that both contests will bring more conservative hard-liners into power, which could limit Rouhani’s room to maneuver even before they take place.
It’s a good thing, then, that the clock continues to tick on negotiations, but it’s not going to continue forever. And things could get very scary very quickly when time finally does run out.