The nuclear deal that Iran, and the world, can live with

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013.
Pete Souza | The White House
President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013.
Posted Oct. 15, 2013, at 11:24 a.m.

After a full decade of failure, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which begin again this week in Geneva, may have a better chance of being fruitful. The people involved are the same as before, and they have the same goals they always had. Now, though, some crucial facts have changed that may make both sides more realistic.

Most important, economic sanctions have taken a big toll on the Iranian economy, which is contracting amid a 40 percent inflation rate. Also, Hassan Rouhani’s surprise win in June’s presidential election made it clear to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the sanctions have become a potential threat to his authority.

Although it’s still true that any nuclear deal would have to be approved by Khamenei, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, and Abbas Araghchi, Zarif’s lead negotiator, now appear to be getting down to specific issues more directly than before. This week, Araghchi pledged to “negotiate about the volume, levels and the methods of enrichment.”

Araghchi also said Iran wouldn’t agree to ship out any of its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, yet that may be a demand that’s designed to trade away during talks and needn’t be a deal breaker.

On the Western side, things have changed, too. The United States and its European allies used to insist that no deal could include Iran continuing its uranium-enrichment program at all. After 10 years, it has become clear that the right to enrich really is a red line for Iran, as it is for the many emerging nations that have supported Iran’s position. U.S. and European (though not Israeli) diplomats appear now to recognize that the right to enrichment at the 3.5 percent level required for nuclear power plants will eventually have to be part of any deal.

What makes things more difficult than before is that Iran’s nuclear program is more technologically advanced than it was even two years ago, and has greater capacity — so it is closer to giving Iranian leaders the option to “break out” and produce a bomb.

As a result, the talks in Geneva have to produce a complete but staged agreement, in which Iranian concessions are matched by meaningful sanctions relief.

A negotiated agreement should ensure that the time Iran requires to break out and make a weapon doesn’t become shorter — and that in the event Iran’s leaders do make such an attempt, the rest of the world will know about it in time to act.

Bloomberg News (Oct. 15)

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