THE BLOG
07/18/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2014

If Iran Negotiations Need to Continue, Let Them

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Regardless of whether or not negotiators conclude a final Iran nuclear deal by Sunday, the United States and Iran have made steady progress toward resolving a crisis that is decades in the making. It appears that the key hurdle to a diplomatic breakthrough is a surmountable one: defining the size and scale of Iran's enrichment program throughout the course of an agreement.

Nobody expected negotiations toward a comprehensive deal with Iran to be a cakewalk, particularly as neither side is incentivized to reveal their ultimate bottom line until the eleventh hour. The potential expiration of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) is a forcing mechanism that could spur last-minute concessions and a diplomatic breakthrough. But an extension appears necessary in order to arrive at a durable agreement that both sides can sell domestically.

If that is the case, we can expect some lawmakers and outside opponents to claim that Iran is "playing for time," even though nothing could be further from the truth. Additionally, they will focus on what we might have to give to get an extension instead of what we would give up if there is no extension.

In an extension, whatever the duration, Iran's nuclear program would remain frozen and partially rolled back under the terms of the JPOA. If the P5+1 and Iran fail to agree to an extension, Iran would be left with a comparatively unconstrained enrichment program that would pose a far greater proliferation risk.

Thus, under an extension, Iran would continue to limit enrichment below 5 percent, contrasted with a best-case scenario of Iran resuming enrichment to the 20 percent level without an extension. If talks continue, international inspectors would continue to have near-constant, daily monitoring of Iran's enrichment facilities to guard against an Iranian breakout. Contrast this with the alternative of twice-monthly monitoring of Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, at best, without an extension.

Of course, as my colleagues Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi detail in a new memo, the collapse of negotiations is unlikely to return us to the status quo we had before the agreement, but to a far more dangerous tit-for-tat cycle of escalation wherein Iran responds to escalating economic and military pressure with a dangerous acceleration of its nuclear program. Thus, Iranian enrichment could well soar beyond 20 percent, and Iran could move to limit the access of inspectors or kick them out entirely. Not only is such a scenario likely with a collapse, it is far more likely to lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon -- or a war -- than a scenario wherein limitations and heavy monitoring are extended.

Aside from the technical disadvantages, Iran is not expected to gain substantial economic relief in a deal's extension. When the JPOA was initially struck, hawks disputed the administration's claims of no more than $7 billion in economic relief over the duration of a deal, claiming that the wall of Iran sanctions is facing imminent collapse. Six months later, the sanctions regime is still intact and the administration's claims of limited and reversible sanctions relief were proven true. While opponents of an agreement have already begun to make the case that the windfall is just around the corner, these are just more wild, unfounded assumptions.

An extension does not increase the risk of an Iranian nuclear breakout or an Iranian economic windfall. As a result, there is no justified reason to object to an extension of nuclear talks, particularly out of fear that Iran is "playing for time."

Only a negotiated settlement can lead to limitations and inspections that guard against a nuclear-armed Iran, and getting such a deal may well require additional time. The alternatives are grim. Military strikes cannot eliminate Iran's nuclear know-how and would incentivize an Iranian nuclear deterrent. Additional sanctions are not a strategy, and are likely to close this rare diplomatic opportunity that is decades in the making. The choice is clear. Congress needs to let the diplomatic process play out, even if it takes a few months longer.