The public outlining by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of his government’s negotiating position in the talks on its nuclear program is a tip-off that Tehran isn’t aiming to conclude a deal by Sunday’s deadline.
Instead, he has described an Iranian position that is unacceptable to Western governments but better than Tehran’s previous, blatantly unserious offers. It is designed to provide Iran’s interlocutors — especially the Obama Administration — with a rationale for extending the talks for as long as six months.
Secretary of State John Kerry said “very real gaps” remain between Tehran and the six-nation coalition. But his aides told reporters an extension was likely. Prolonging the negotiations is better than declaring a breakdown, which could lead to a military conflict at a time when the United States is juggling multiple crises in the region and beyond.
The preliminary accord struck with Iran last fall, while far from perfect, has appeared to curtail Tehran’s enrichment of uranium. Contrary to predictions by Israel, the limited economic relief given in exchange has not caused the sanctions regime to break down.
Mr. Zarif’s maneuvering, however, supports two sobering conclusions. One is that the Iranian regime is not feeling as much economic pressure as it was a year ago, and no longer sees the removal of sanctions as urgent. The other is that Tehran is positioning itself in such a way that it will be unable to make the concessions that should be required for a long-term settlement without a major climb-down and accompanying loss of face.
There is some headway on issues such as Iran’s construction of a reactor capable of producing plutonium and terms for enhanced inspections. But a nearly unbridgeable gulf has opened on the issue of uranium enrichment.
The United States and its allies seek a substantial reduction in Iran’s stock of 19,000 centrifuges, so that the time it would need to produce the material for a bomb would be extended to at least six months to a year. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears to have prohibited any dismantlement of infrastructure. He declared this month that Iran needs 190,000 centrifuges.
Mr. Zarif has offered to extend controls on Iran’s enrichment — which freeze the current centrifuges in place and limit the amount and quality of their production — for a few years in exchange for the removal of sanctions. In addition to the problems posed by a time limit, the deal would leave in place a bomb “breakout” capacity. That should be unacceptable.
Iran’s position could soften if talks continue. But the Obama Administration should reject any attempt by Mr. Zarif to obtain concessions, such as increased oil sales, in exchange for an extension. It should begin preparing for the moment when time runs out — and when, as seems likely now, Iran refuses to yield.