The deadline for a nuclear deal came and went Monday with no agreement - just a seven-month extension of the interim agreement. Public comments by Western and Iranian officials, as well as media reports, suggest that enough progress has been made since Iran and the six world powers signed the interim agreement in Geneva last year to justify carrying on talking. After 11 years of inconclusive negotiations, there is only one possible final outcome: Unless the West folds to Iran's demands, there is no chance that an agreement will be reached.
The extension of the interim deal does not bode well for those who wish to see Iran's nuclear ambitions blunted. Eleven months of sanctions relief delivered Iran from economic collapse and prematurely squandered much of the leverage the Obama administration and its European partners held over Tehran. That leverage, diminished despite the lack of any major Iranian concessions, will continue to shrink over time. Additional extensions will further erode any Western advantage, without requiring Iran to yield significantly to Western expectations.
By exacting sanctions relief early, Iran changed market psychology and improved the fundamentals of its economy. A year ago, Iran's economy was on a downward trajectory; all signs now point to a slow but steady recovery. This has in turn diminished the sense of impending doom which, according to Western officials, rushed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate a stand-in deal. As a result, Iran feels it needs only to negotiate, not to compromise. For Tehran, this has been a wise approach: Confronted with Iran's stonewalling, Western negotiators have shown that they are more eager to avoid another diplomatic failure than to avoid midwifing a bad deal.
Graced with softening Western demands and a gradually improving economy, Iran is free to continue pursuing its goals. Tehran is trying to keep its nuclear infrastructure intact while peeling away at the sanctions architecture the United States and its European allies have put into place, with considerable difficulty, over the past eight years. Iran knows that once this architecture has been dismantled, reassembling it will be prohibitively difficult. While Iran holds fast, the six world powers are blurring their demands on every element of the negotiations, in the hope of attaining any deal they can tout as a success. It will be a success, eventually, but for Iran.
Nowhere has the erosion of Western red lines been more evident than over the issue of Iranian enrichment. By obtaining recognition for a right of enrichment in the interim agreement, Iran already undermined six UN Security Council resolutions and established that whatever else happens, Iran's indigenous nuclear enrichment program will remain in place. Negotiations are now apparently stuck on the scope of Iran's enrichment capacities - from the initial symbolic number of 400 centrifuges, Western diplomats have reportedly conceded that Iran's program will retain thousands. In fact, Western negotiators may have even offered to allow Iran to leave all centrifuges in place, if only Tehran agrees to disconnect some of the piping between them.
Enrichment is the core of any nuclear weapons program. Western diplomats are deluding themselves if they think that stringent verification measures on their own can prevent Iran from resuming enrichment. No such arrangement would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons the day the regime were to violate an agreement - something Iran has repeatedly done in the past.
By refusing to budge on any substantive issue, Iran is ensuring that, if a deal is to be had, Iran's attainment of a nuclear weapon will be delayed, but not scuttled.
Other Western retreats from previously heralded red lines will also eventually prove costly. Iran's ballistic missile program, which can hit Russia and parts of Central Asia, as well as Western China and Central Europe, is no longer subject to negotiation. Iran's stonewalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency over the nuclear program's clandestine military dimensions has elicited no consequences. Iran's history of nuclear procurement will not likely be documented in full. A new verification regime will not be as stringent as required, given Iran's history of nuclear deception. And the duration of the deal will not be measured in decades, but merely in years. This means that once the deal has expired, Iran's nuclear program will be treated like Great Britain's, Germany's or the Netherlands' - but Iran will likely continue to behave like Iran.
Given how far Western negotiators have gone to accommodate Iranian demands, it is unlikely that Iran will suddenly agree to dismantle much of its nuclear infrastructure, offer full transparency about its past nuclear activities, and accept a stringent verification regime that will enable early detection of any violation. If a deal emerges, it will be a bad one.