The champagne (or, under the circumstances, the apple juice) was chilled. The relevant foreign ministers beckoned. It looked as if all was ready to allow the signing of an interim or limited agreement that would freeze elements of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a partial relaxation of much of the rest of the world’s economic sanctions.
But then things unraveled. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, appeared to echo the Israeli view that not enough was being demanded of Iran in exchange what was being offered up. The Iranian delegation, for its part, appeared to have had second thoughts after arriving home, wanting more (an explicit acknowledgment of Iran’s “right to enrich” uranium) than the US and others were prepared to provide.
So the only announcements on Friday and over the weekend were of plans to resume more talks at the working level in an effort to resurrect an interim arrangement on terms that would be broadly acceptable to Iran, the US, France, Russia and the EU.
But it is not clear that such an approach is either doable or desirable. Interim agreements are thought to be easier to reach, but they can be harder to sell. There is the fear that steps taken cannot be reversed if things do not work out. This is what the advocates of sanctions suspect and the government of Iran no doubt hopes for. There is also a fear those activities that are not limited will only become more of a problem, a real issue when any freeze of Iranian nuclear activities would be partial. There is also a fear that what is meant as interim or temporary might become permanent.
So, it turns out, interim agreements can be as hard or even harder to negotiate than final pacts and can consume a good deal of political capital, while achieving less in the way of results even if negotiations succeed. So the question naturally arises: why not just skip an interim pact and negotiate final status?
The argument is that it would be too hard and take too much time to do it in one go. But by including everything, a comprehensive approach actually increases the scope for trade-offs. It also increases what each party derives from the accord, making it easier to defend domestically against the inevitable charges of giving up too much. Going directly to final status discussions forces everyone to focus on what was actually agreed on, rather than on the supposed precedents being set and the worst possible extrapolations of what could come to pass.
What might a final status accord look like in this instance? Iran would cease enriching uranium at the 20 per cent level and its existing stockpile would be either shipped out or rendered unusable. There would be significant reductions in the number of centrifuges it would be allowed and even in the amount of low-enriched uranium it could possess. Work would stop on the heavy water plant at Arak, linked to a plutonium project. Intrusive international inspections would become a permanent fixture. The net result would be an increase in the time it would take Iran to produce nuclear weapons if it decided to try to do so, and therefore also increasing the likelihood of detection.
In return, Iran would receive a substantial relaxation in sanctions against it, something much needed if its economy is to recover. Iran’s right and ability to enrich uranium to a low level would be clear so long as it was carried out in a manner consistent with the terms of the accord.
One other consideration is what the two sides would do in the time it takes to negotiate such an accord. Tacit restraint is probably the best way to go about it. The goal would be for each party to avoid creating conditions that make it impossible for the other side to sustain negotiations. The US would likely need to hold off introducing additional sanctions; Iran would likely need to postpone enhancing its capacities.
The best way to render such considerations moot, though, would be a rapid conclusion, in a few months of a comprehensive pact in which all obligations were made specific and lasting. The case for doing so remains strong. Iran needs to do something for its economy if its revolution is to be secure; the US and the other countries involved want to avoid a choice between going to war with Iran or allowing it to acquire nuclear weapons.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations