With significant headway already made but major gaps remaining - and especially with the options available in the event of a breakdown of negotiations looking unattractive to all parties - it made good sense for the P5+1 countries and Iran to extend their talks for another four months, which they announced late Friday.
The United States and its partners can well afford to take the additional time. The six-month halt in all significant advances in Iran's nuclear program will remain in effect, as will the modest but worthwhile lengthening of the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon - the result of the neutralization of Tehran's entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium gas. Indeed, over the next four months, Iran has agreed to convert a portion of its 20 percent uranium in powdered form to fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, making it even less readily accessible for use in a weapons program.
Moreover, with an extension of the very limited sanctions relief measures that applied during the six-month deal, including the suspension of certain secondary sanctions and the continuation of the metered-out release of a tiny fraction of Iran's oil revenues held in overseas restricted accounts (roughly $700 million a month for a total of $2.8 billion by November), the devastating impact of the sanctions will remain intact and Iran will continue to have plenty of incentive to reach a comprehensive agreement.
The Extension Is Better for the P5+1 than for Iran
It is the Iranian public, more than Western publics, that should be disappointed with the failure to meet the July 20 target date, and especially with the continuation of the debilitating sanctions. Critics of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), notably the Israeli government, had predicted that the interim deal would result in a rush to do business with Iran and an unraveling of the sanctions regime.
But those predictions have not materialized. Companies and governments all over the world have been exceedingly cautious about engaging in new business with Iran. They have waited for the end of sanctions, which they knew would only result from the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement.
The new deadline of November 24 was well chosen. It is consistent with the provision of the JPOA (announced November 24, 2013) that called on the parties to conclude negotiation of a comprehensive solution "no more than one year after the adoption of this document." And importantly, the four months is long enough to give governments the time to make important decisions and negotiators the time to craft detailed provisions - but not so long that it would give critics in Tehran, Washington, and elsewhere the impression that the parties are prepared to prolong the talks indefinitely.
Perhaps most important, the extension will allow the parties to step back, take stock, and reflect on the hard choices that will confront them in the months ahead.
In their public comments, all sides have noted that the negotiations have produced significant progress, including in recent weeks and on some major issues. In particular, negotiators are reportedly working on design modifications of the Arak heavy water reactor that will substantially reduce its production of plutonium and opportunities for breakout. Discussions are also apparently underway about how the functions of the underground Fordow enrichment facility will be changed to minimize fears about its potential use in a nuclear weapons program.
But when government spokespersons on all sides talk about major gaps remaining, they are talking primarily about the vast divide that remains between the P5+1 and Iran - and especially between the Washington and Tehran - on the question of the uranium enrichment capacity Iran should be allowed to possess under an agreement.
Enrichment Remains the Primary Outstanding Issue in the Nuclear Talks
Iran has insisted that it must have sufficient enrichment capacity to produce enriched fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power reactor when the Russia-Iran contract to supply fuel for that Russian-built reactor expires in 2021. That would require Iran to expand its current enrichment capacity by a factor of ten or more and would reduce the amount of time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb to a matter of a few weeks, should it decide to do so.
The United States and its P5+1 partners have called for a sharp reduction of Iran's current enrichment capacity (i.e., around 19,000 centrifuges, less than 10,000 of them operating) - to perhaps a few thousand first-generation centrifuges or a smaller number of more advanced centrifuges. They point out that such a limited enrichment capacity would nonetheless enable Iran to meet its realistic, near-term practical needs for enriched uranium - to provide enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, a modified Arak reactor, and perhaps a small light-water research reactor - and that Russia is eager to continue supplying fuel for Bushehr beyond 2021 (and could do so reliably and more competently, cheaply and safely than Iran could do on its own).