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Why extending nuclear talks with Iran makes a lot of sense right now

Differences over the details still are serious — but probably less of a problem than the political will to get a deal done. So it’s remarkable that negotiations have gotten as far as they have.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are pictured before a meeting in Vienna on Sunday.
REUTERS/Ronald Zak

Messy as it seems, are we witnessing a bit of history in the making?

Diplomats from the United States and other world powers appear to have missed a self-imposed deadline Monday in order to cut a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program. 

The general outline of an agreement has long been clear: limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities for a defined period of time and strict international monitoring, coupled with a rolling timetable for lifting economic sanctions. But plenty of problems remain: How far will Iran have to scale back its program? How quickly will sanctions be lifted, and which ones?

Both sides are and will remain deeply suspicious of each other, regardless of what happens in coming months. Any deal faces extremely high political hurdles back home. So it’s remarkable that negotiations have gotten as far as they have.

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There is much to be gained, however. So it’s logical that Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China would want to extend the deadline and keep talking.

For the U.S., which already is grappling with chaos across the Middle East, a deal could solve a headache that has existed at least since Iran’s covert nuclear program was exposed more than a decade ago. President Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and U.S. officials have not excluded bombing.

But recently the U.S. has found itself, if not cooperating with Shiite Iran, at least sitting uncomfortably on the same side in the conflict with Sunni militants from the Islamic State. Obama told ABC News that an agreement could allow Iran an opportunity to rebuild its relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

Iran is eager to get its economy moving. To do that, it needs to see an easing of sanctions that have crippled its oil industry. Many petroleum producers are hurting now because of surging production in the U.S. and elsewhere that has driven pump prices here to $2.70 a gallon or less. Analysts say we may well be in for a prolonged period of relatively cheap oil.

Iran still is frequently a nasty place, sharply divided between reformers and hardliners. Its new president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected last year on promises to fix the economy. According to a special report in the Economist this month, he has managed to stabilize it after precipitous drops in GDP and the value of the currency, and a sharp increase in inflation.

But even if Iran can’t make as much money on every barrel of oil it pumps, it isn’t likely to want to remain on the sidelines when it needs access to markets, technology and investment to modernize its petroleum industry.

So a deal makes a good deal of sense for both sides. Differences over the details still are very serious – but probably are less of a problem than the political will. 

Even before Democrats’ loss in the midterm elections this month, Obama would have had a hard time selling any deal the Iranians could swallow. He may even have a hard time getting Congress on board with extending the negotiations. Suspicion in Congress is very high – among Republicans as well as many Democrats – that Iran is simply playing for time while it pursues weapons technology.

Iran insists it is not interested in nuclear weapons – that it wants to develop a civilian nuclear industry. But the nuclear program has enjoyed broad support as an expression of Iran’s national sovereignty.

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It may be simply too difficult to reach internal consensus on concessions necessary for an agreement. Rouhani’s political foes would love to see him fail, and many hardliners might prefer more hardship and self-reliance. No one is sure where exactly the one person who really matters, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stands.

All the same, there are a few tantalizing hints of movement in Iran.

Iran sees itself as a major regional player, a counterweight to Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to play that role as an international pariah. Then, there is the issue of existential change.

Some have suggested that hardliners might be able to go along with a nuclear deal, but that restoring relations with the United States still would be a bridge too far.

Despite the obstacles, according to striking comments from a well-connected Iranian political adviser included in this report, a nuclear deal could open the door to a fundamental shift in Iran aimed at updating its ideology, toning down its anti-America stance, refocusing on its role in the Middle East and making the political system feel less oppressive to millions of well-educated, middle-class urbanites.

Does that seem optimistic? Sure. Nothing might get resolved anytime soon. Or the whole effort still could collapse. But every once in a while, circumstances align to give countries a chance to make an historic shift. As difficult as it looks, this might be one of them. 

Mark Porubcansky has been a foreign correspondent and editor for 30 years. He served until recently as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, and now lives in Scandia.