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July 18, 2014

Iran: All Talk and More Talk

The P5+1 and Iran have agreed to extend their November nuclear deal.

Recall if you will, Barack Obama’s State of the Union “tough talk” about his “deadline deal” with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions: “If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapons.” Well, the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) and Iran have agreed to an extension of their November nuclear deal beyond its July 20 deadline for a final agreement to be reached. Not only are there no additional sanctions, but Iran will have access to $2.8 billion in what were frozen assets. This extension comes as no surprise, given the two sides remain light-years apart in their negotiating positions, and a failure to extend talks would force the Obama administration and the rest of the “international community” to fish or cut bait. With numerous other parts of the world currently less than tranquil, and with a congenital aversion to military force, Barack Obama undoubtedly sees more talks as the best option. He’s not alone – the Iranians have successfully extended debate for 11 years and would love nothing better than to keep that streak going.

The crux of the matter is and always has been uranium enrichment. The P5+1 want Iran’s capability cut back significantly; Iran not only dismisses cutbacks, it openly says it intends to expand enrichment. Iran insists it must be self-sufficient in producing reactor fuel, while the P5+1 point out that many other nations with civil nuclear programs do not produce their own fuel. Iran’s desire for self-sufficiency is a common theme in its military, civil and scientific efforts, and originates with its experience in the Iran-Iraq War. Denied arms by virtually everyone while arch-enemy Iraq was supplied with numerous modern weapons, Iran’s leaders swore “never again.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is himself an Iran-Iraq War veteran, and he has made his position crystal clear time and time again: “We will never give up our right to a nuclear program.”

It’s difficult to see how the two sides can bridge the enrichment gap. The hardliners remain firmly in control in Tehran and are unlikely to soften their position. The P5+1 cannot – cannot – give in and acknowledge Iran’s right to unrestricted enrichment. But absent a meaningful, workable agreement, the Obama administration must be willing to return to the economic sanctions approach. Extending talks merely for the sake of more talks is not a strategy – it’s a dodge. For the moment, Secretary of State John Kerry concludes, “A bad deal is better than no deal.” Apparently not by much.

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