It's now down to horse trading: The negotiations between Iran and the wider world, which reach their initial deadline Sunday (and were extended for six months in a late decision Friday), have come to a head. At this point, the six countries negotiating with Iran will either reach for a compromise or walk away from six months of talks aimed at reaching a deal to end the crippling sanctions imposed upon Iran in exchange for Iran reducing or making more transparent its nuclear program under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It's time to ask what we want from Iran. What should be sought as a final outcome from this exercise in disciplining a nation?
Compromises have already been made. Western powers have somewhat reduced the sanctions that have isolated Iran from much of the world economy since 2012. Iran has stopped enriching uranium up to weapons-grade levels and has stopped building its Arak research reactor. Both sides say they want a deal and are willing to be flexible to get it.
At this point, there are three potential outcomes. Choosing one could undermine the others. They need to be considered carefully.
A fully defanged Iran. At their most basic level, these talks are intended to stop Iran from being able to get the bomb. A maximalist approach would completely isolate Iran with sanctions until it gives up every vestige of a nuclear program.
This is essentially the approach that Canada's Conservative government took when it shut down its diplomatic ties with Iran. Israel went further, suggesting that it would soon bomb Iran (an approach it has abandoned).
Even if you dismiss this goal, it's worth acknowledging that sanctions have worked: They played a part in turning the Iranian public against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and creating the circumstances that led to the election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani. The fact that Iran is losing $5-billion a month from sanctions and has $100-billion in frozen assets may have been what caused Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to make it his priority to get the sanctions lifted and to authorize negotiations.
That doesn't mean they'd work again. For one thing, this approach would be acting in bad faith: All signs indicate that Iran is attempting, for now, to abide by the NPT. And if Iran walks away from the table, no amount of embargo or even outright war will prevent it from getting the bomb within a few years if it wants to.
A useful Iran. Besides, the United States and Europe won't be pursuing the maximalist approach because, at the moment, they need Iran.
It's true that Tehran is the main backer of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and has helped turn Iraq into a divided country, and may even have provided arms to Palestinian extremists. But Iran is also being strategically courted because it is a key opponent of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. And, equally pressing, if Europe wants to sanction Russia for its actions in Ukraine, it will need a new source of gas – and Iran's huge output is really the only alternative. At the moment, there is a decided mood of compromise because punishing Russia beats punishing Iran.
The New York Times described the key question: "How much risk is the United States willing to take to reach a deal that will almost certainly leave Iran with some potential, over the long term, to make a nuclear weapon?" The answer is almost certainly "some."
A democratic Iran. Above all, it's worth asking what course of action would best help Iranians. Which path would help Iran become the democratic, stable, non-authoritarian nation it is capable of being?
Mr. Rouhani is not the leader who will bring it there. He was allowed to be elected, many observers say, strictly in order to resolve the nuclear crisis. He has improved life, but only so much: Iran continues to imprison dissidents such as reporter Marzieh Rasouli, sentenced this week to two years in prison and 50 lashes for having reported on the 2009 democracy uprising. It has reportedly executed 176 people this year alone.
If Western countries cut off Iran off completely, they will give the hard-liners a major victory and make reform even harder. On the other hand, overreliance on Iran to solve security problems won't help, either. It is therefore worth reaching for a mutually acceptable compromise. After all, it would be far more effective to help create the sort of Iran whose possession of a nuclear weapon would not be a cause of bother to anyone. That may seem a long way off, but it can be hastened if we move beyond this showdown.