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The Khamenei Hold-Out: Enrichment Impasse Likely to Defer Deadline for Iran Nuclear Talks

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a news conference in Vienna, Austria.

After a promising start, negotiations between Tehran, Washington and five other world powers appear to have fallen short of their intended goal, a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear impasse. Talks are continuing, but as all signs suggest the negotiations' deadline — originally set for Sunday — will be extended for several months.

While an extension would hardly represent the worst-case scenario for the hard-fought nuclear diplomacy, the discussions emanating from the latest round of talks in Vienna signal a deeper challenge. Statements from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seem to suggest that, despite at least 10 months of serious dialogue, the two sides have not achieved a basic understanding on the parameters for a final deal. And the contention remains centered on the very issue that has stymied diplomacy from nearly the beginning — defining Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium.

This is profoundly troubling. For most of the past decade, U.S. officials and their European, Russian and Chinese counterparts demanded a complete suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities. This demand was reinforced by successive United Nations Security Council resolutions and by an insidious architecture of economic sanctions that put the Iranian economy in a stranglehold. Throughout this period, Tehran remained equally insistent that, in the words of President Hassan Rouhani, enrichment "is being continued today, it will continue tomorrow, and our enrichment will never stop."

And yet, the successful conclusion of the interim accord last November finally appeared to have overcome that obstacle. The fundamental outlines of the deal were as clear then as they are today: Tehran would accept meaningful constraints on its nuclear activities, including enrichment, and the West would permit the country’s gradual reintegration into the international financial system. So how is it possible that five days before the deadline for talks to end, Secretary Kerry conceded that the two sides have not yet "arrived at the workable formula"?

Compounding the cause for concern was the proposal floated publicly by Kerry's Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, earlier this week. Zarif's plan involves a freeze on Iran's enrichment capacity at current levels, reinforced by Iranian pledges to convert most of its nuclear fuel stockpiles into forms that would render them useless for weapons. However, Zarif's self-described "innovative proposal" would leave all of Iran's current centrifuges in place and operational. The proposal came a week after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and the ultimate decision-maker, proclaimed in a speech to senior government officials that Iran has an "absolute need" for dramatic expansions in enrichment capacity.

That speech and Zarif's proposal raise profound questions about whether Tehran has the political will to undertake the steps that will be entailed in any comprehensive deal — in other words, whether Iran can relinquish some enrichment capacity. Not repackage it, or put it on ice, or hide it in a closet and save it for a rainy day, but to scale back its centrifuge dreams dramatically.

That has always been the premise of these negotiations: if Iran's Islamic Republic wants to secure sanctions relief, its leadership will have to give up some of its nuclear infrastructure. That this tradeoff is unpalatable to Tehran does not absolve it of making the choice — just as Washington was forced to choose between its own maximalist aims and the urgency of devising a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

America and its partners opted for a deal, and President Obama made his case directly to the American people — and to a very skeptical Congress and even more unsettled allies — that Washington cannot get all that it wants from Tehran. He put his own credibility and authority behind a deal that advanced America's core interests and accepted the political fallout that accompanies the granting of concessions to an adversary. Can Ali Khamenei do the same?

My colleague Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn, who participated in each of the negotiations with Iran prior to leaving the Obama Administration one year ago, has cautioned for months that enrichment remained a key sticking point. He warned in May, when expectations surrounding the talks seemed buoyant, that "(n)owhere is the gap greater than on the size and composition of the uranium enrichment program that Iran would be allowed to possess under the comprehensive agreement." And Secretary Kerry emphasized this week that the Iranian position "didn't come as a surprise to me or to others."

Still, even if the enrichment impasse is predictable, its persistence is worrisome. An extension of the talks will provide new opportunities for bridging the gap, but more talks cannot augment the political will of an insecure Iranian leadership. That is why the July 20 deadline was so important for testing Iranian intentions.

If Tehran cannot accept these compromises now, it is hard to envision what, if any, factors will prompt them to do so in four additional weeks or four additional months. To the contrary, the intensification of regional chaos may only stiffen the spines of Iranian hard-liners and entrench their aversion to making any concessions to the 'Great Satan' on an aspect of their security that they consider existential.

The Obama administration remains determined to put the best face on the situation, with the President announcing that "it's clear to me that we have made real progress in several areas and that we have a credible way forward." As U.S. officials seek to build support within Congress for an extension of the talks, they will continue to stress the benefits of the interim accord's freeze on Iran's nuclear activities and the assessment that Tehran's approach to the talks has been "surprisingly favorable."

Congress is already mobilizing in opposition to any additional sanctions relief, and it is likely that there will be serious discussions around the imposition of new penalties against Tehran as well. Still, the advantage remains with the administration; despite tough talk, Capitol Hill is not eager to be seen as the precipitant of diplomacy's demise.

So the show will go on, and despite the disappointing denouement of this phase of the negotiations, I'm still cautiously optimistic that a comprehensive deal can be done simply because Iran's alternatives are so profoundly unattractive and even perilous. The six-month negotiating period has proven the resilience of the sanctions regime, as even the modest openings permitted under the interim accord generated only a trickle of new revenue for Tehran.

In the absence of a resolution, Iran faces more of the same: isolation, deprivation, and billions of dollars sacrificed on the altar of more centrifuges. The technocrats who are back in charge of Iran's executive branch have no illusions about the long-term viability of a 'resistance economy' for a state still very much bankrolled by oil exports. 

And they understand what failure means for the clout of President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration — and, by extension, the newly revived popular legitimacy of a fundamentally unpopular system — is staked on a resolution to the nuclear crisis. The death of the deal would kneecap his remaining three years in office, leaving the revolutionary system in precarious flux. Even Khamenei prefers an executive who can manage the country competently and fend off debilitating factional infighting, and Rouhani's assiduous efforts to rehabilitate Iran could only have happened with the Supreme Leader's imprimatur.

For that reason, even the shadow of the continuing stalemate, the outlook for an eventual comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran remains cautiously optimistic. However, that outcome remains contingent on the ability and willingness of the Iranian leadership to make the difficult choices that come with responsible governance.