When nuclear negotiations with Iran began, policy wonks and pro-Israel advocates marked July 20 on their calendars. It was the deadline set for reaching a historic agreement between Tehran and the global powers, after which Iran would either rejoin the community of nations or face an escalation that could lead to military action down the road.
But now the deadline is set to come and go, without leaving much of a mark.
Gaps between Iran and the group of six nations it is negotiating with are too large to overcome by then, but progress made in six months of negotiations is too significant to give up. And so the finish line is largely expected to move once again, without much opposition being heard from Washington, Tehran — or even Jerusalem.
“Extension is the most likely outcome,” said Gary Samore, who until 2013 served as President Obama’s top adviser on nuclear nonproliferation. Samore, now executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, explained that pushing back the deadline is the most reasonable course of action for Iran and for the United States.
“Both sides would prefer the current status quo than a return to the previous situation when we were steadily increasing sanctions and Iran was increasing enrichment and it appeared to be heading to a military confrontation,” Samore added.
Six months have passed since the interim nuclear agreement was signed, and its expected extension gives pause to take toll of what negotiations have yielded so far. While an agreement is still elusive, all parties have learned important lessons during this interim period: Iran discovered that the path to opening world markets and to ending its international seclusion will be longer than it had expected; America has learned that even under crippling economic pressure, Iran can still run a tough bargain, and Israel, initially fearful of the interim agreement, which it viewed as a step toward the complete collapse of a carefully structured sanctions regime, found out that Iran, by and large, can stick to a deal and that the world is not rushing to unlock Iran’s ring of isolation.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to admit that the initial six months have passed without a breakthrough. As the July 20 deadline approaches, the United States has increased pressure, signaling to Iran that it should not count on an extension of the interim agreement and that it would be better off showing up at the negotiating table with willingness to compromise.
“An extension is by no means automatic,” said a senior administration official briefing reporters on the status of talks on July 3. The official argued that meeting the deadline is “not impossible” but it was up to Tehran to demonstrate flexibility. “This is not a negotiation about two parties meeting each other halfway,“ the official said.
But as the clock ticks toward the deadline, the gaps remain significant, most visibly on issues relating to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium after a deal is signed. Tehran, according to press reports based on sources from both sides, insists on maintaining its existing stockpile of enriched uranium and keeping thousands of centrifuges that would be able to produce more low-level enriched uranium. The United States and its partners have insisted on reducing the existing stockpile of enriched uranium and limiting the number of operative centrifuges to several hundred, a number that will allow enrichment for research and energy uses but will keep Iran at least a year away from acquiring enough nuclear material to build a bomb.
This gap has placed Israel much closer to the United States than when negotiations began. The Israeli government still insists that only a zero enrichment deal could be acceptable. And while the Obama administration has never agreed to this demand, it is now clear that Washington’s position on this issue is much closer to that of Jerusalem than it is to Tehran’s standpoint.