On Sunday, the six months allotted for the negotiations between Iran and six major powers led by the United States – known as the P5 + 1 – on the Iranian nuclear program expire. The fact that Iran and the world have spent half a year holding negotiations over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons development program is a hugely positive step. It is also, however, nothing more than a starting point. The intended destination of those talks – an agreement to prevent Iran from getting the bomb – has still not been reached.
A limited extension of the talking period is likely. And desirable, too. Iranians sitting down at the same table as Americans and Europeans is progress, and offers the hope that there might be more. The International Atomic Energy Agency could also use some more weeks to continue to investigate a few elusive technical aspects (oddly known as "possible military dimensions" – "probable" is more likely) of the Iranian nuclear conundrum. But another half-year with no breakthrough would be too long. The pressure needs to be kept up.
If the negotiations do not make progress, then the sanctions against Iran, partly loosened during the past six months as an incentive for the Iranians, should be tightened up all over again, and even tougher measures should also be introduced. Sanctions hit the Iranian economy hard, and their temporary loosening has been a clear positive for the Tehran regime and the Iranian people. But the lowering of the sanctions, like the negotiations, is supposed to be a quid pro quo. Their purpose is not to permit Tehran to purchase time on the instalment plan to make nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration has not had many foreign-policy successes. Yet this administration has surpassed all its predecessors in making sanctions on Iran far stronger and more effective. It has mobilized the Europeans to take steps to hamstring the Iranian economy; even Russia and China are partly on board, backing a substantial reduction of Iran's current enrichment capacity.
Mr. Obama and his administration appear to understand how disastrous it would be if the Iranians were to obtain nuclear weapons, and they have succeeded in rallying other major powers. What's more, the partial relief of sanctions during the negotiations has not led to any crumbling of the sanctions regime as a whole. So far, the sanctions coalition has held.
Greater co-operation from Iran can be matched by greater relief on the sanctions front – and more oil revenue coming into the country, which is felt directly both by the ruling elite and the population.
If a good, prudent agreement does start to solidify, Iran ought not to expect to be treated as an ordinary party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for a generation to come. Over the years, its theocratic government has repeatedly deceived the IAEA, but it now apparently expects to be reinstated as a member in good standing in half a dozen years or so, if there is an agreement at all. Twenty years could be more like it – particularly because by then, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would presumably no longer be in office. This week, he unhelpfully demanded a preposterous number of uranium-enriching centrifuges be permitted Iran: 190,000.
There have been moments when observers justifiably worried that John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, might be too eager for an agreement of any kind, rather than for a truly effective one. It is consequently encouraging that in her regular media briefings, Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, has struck an increasingly tough tone.
The talks between the P5 + 1 and Iran should not really aim for the normal give-and-take of negotiation. It is up to the Iranians to purge themselves of their long years of deception and to try to eventually put themselves in good standing as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Outside of the nuclear negotiations, the U.S. and Iran have a degree of common interest – in Iraq. Much as they both wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the first decade of this century, today they both want to overcome the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But that isn't much help on the nuclear-proliferation front.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have no desire to have Iran as the neighbourhood nuclear power. The Saudis understandably feel threatened. Speculation and rumour have it that Pakistan stands ready to outfit Saudi Arabia with nuclear-weapons technology if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. The Saudis will have both motive and money to respond in kind. Others in the region would surely want to join the game.
There can't be much comfort in any hope of a balance of nuclear terror, or mutually assured destruction, in the Middle East. There is no sound analogy to the comparative stability of the Cold War, with two fairly evenly matched great powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There's reason to fear that a nuclear Middle East won't work like that. And even the old East-West conflict was hardly a comfortable existence. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 came very close to catastrophe.
If the current negotiations break down, not all will be lost. The sanctions will be reinstated in full, and Washington and European leaders will have every reason to pile on new sanctions and up the pressure on Tehran. The people of Iran will know that their own rulers are to blame.
A negotiated solution, one that halts and rolls back Iran's nuclear weapons ambition, remains the best possible outcome. It isn't guaranteed. But the Iranians have many motives not to isolate themselves, and because of that, there's hope.