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Do Four More Months for Iran Talks Enhance American Leverage or Cede Ground to Tehran?

Delegations from Iran and other world powers sit before the start of closed-door nuclear talks.

Following the announcement that Iran, the United States, and five world powers agreed to extend their negotiations on Iran's nuclear program until November 24, Brookings experts engaged in a dialogue about the implications of the decision and recommendations for the United States during the next round of talks.

Natan Sachs
Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy Program

This is precisely what the Israelis — and our own Michael Doran — warned: that the temporary nature of the Joint Plan of Action will become permanent, and in the meantime, Iran will not only experience some economic recovery but actually get more a bit more sanctions relief for the extension. Though the biting pressure on Iran remains largely intact, this hardly bodes well for Iranian intentions.

One key question in my mind is what happens in four months? Do the P5+1 have a coordinated view on this? Would the administration accept congressional efforts to ratchet up sanctions — or possibly even work with the legislative branch to prepare new measures in the event that a comprehensive agreement cannot be achieved in November? I thought the congressional proposals early on were premature, but this may be the appropriate time to signal very clearly to Iran what the cost of another failure would be.

As I wrote for this blog six months ago, I thought the interim agreement was, on balance, worth the shot for everyone's interests, including those of Israel. But it is incumbent on all those of us who believed that to articulate clear boundaries so we can tell if and when we were wrong. Four months from now (without another extension) might be just the right time.

A tangible gain from the interim deal, even if talks fail, would be to convince the other partners in the P5+1 about Iranian intransigence. From my humble perspective, working with the rest of the P5+1 is as important now as working with Iran: making sure our partners in the international community all see Iranian intransigence for what it is.

Tamara Wittes
Director, Center for Middle East Policy, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Program

In my many discussions with Israelis about this negotiation, they have expressed concern that the United States would prove unwilling to walk away from the table when July 20 loomed without a good enough deal. And they've also, quite reasonably, worried that an extension would give the Iranians more time to exploit differences within the P5+1 and erode the sanctions regime. Given the current state of U.S.-European and Russia-Western ties, that latter concern seems more justified than ever.

And yet, it's still important to evaluate this four-month extension in light of the alternatives. A collapse of the talks driven by U.S. dissatisfaction would have been even more likely to split the P5+1, and more likely to lead key states to soften their sanctions commitments. At the same time, the end of the interim deal would have left Iran's enrichment and other nuclear activities unconstrained and largely unmonitored. It would have led, therefore, to a rapid collapse of the existing international pressure/containment strategy and a rapid escalation in the threat posed by Iran — and thus a push toward military force.

However, in the current fractured and crisis-overloaded international environment, the U.S. and Israel would have been hard-pressed to collect a strong coalition of allies for a military strike. This would have meant proceeding to war with a very weak hand. Staring that alternative in the face, a four-month extension that converts all of Iran's 20 percent-enriched stockpile is a decidedly better outcome and one that, should the talks still fail later, leaves the U.S. in a much better position to do what might then be necessary.