November 11, 2013

SUPPORTERS AND opponents of an accord with Iran on its nuclear program ought to agree that the latest pause in the talks was fortunate. On Saturday night in Geneva, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and representatives of five other countries appeared close to completing an interim agreement with Tehran despite the vociferous objections of Israel and many members of the U.S. Congress. One close ally, France, was worried about what its foreign minister called a “fool’s game.” Mr. Kerry said that in the end Iran backed away from a deal. But the Obama administration could profitably spend the time before the next round of talks ensuring that whatever terms it puts forward for limiting Iranian nuclear capacity have broad support in Washington and among U.S. allies.

The administration’s strategy has raised doubts on two grounds. One is its aim of striking a temporary bargain that would limit Iranian nuclear work in exchange for a partial rollback of sanctions, with the goal of completing a permanent agreement in six months. Israel and some congressional critics say any easing of sanctions should only follow decisive moves by Iran to give up its capacity to enrich uranium or produce plutonium, the key elements in nuclear bombs. They argue that because sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy, time is on the side of the West. They warn that any relaxation of pressure could lead to an unintended crumbling of the sanctions regime.

Mr. Kerry answers that “each day that you don’t have an agreement” Iran will move closer to a bomb — and that a final settlement will take time to negotiate. Freezing the program would allow talks to move forward without the risk that Tehran will take steps — such as introducing a new generation of centrifuges or fueling a new plutonium-producing reactor — that could compel military action by the United States or Israel. The corresponding sanctions relief, including the unfreezing of some Iranian assets, would not change legal mandates and could be quickly reversed, officials say.

That argument strikes us as reasonable. But the skeptics, who in Geneva seemed to include France’s foreign minister, made some troubling points about the specific terms on which the Obama administration appeared prepared to agree to. One concerned the new heavy water reactor: Iran wanted to continue its construction during negotiations. Since it’s hard to imagine a permanent settlement that allowed for the operation of the facility, the West should insist on a freeze.

The second doubt is about Iran’s demand that its “right” to enrich uranium be acknowledged. While acceptance of a residual enrichment capacity may be a necessary element of any permanent settlement, this should be contingent on the regime’s acceptance of stringent controls, including a significant downsizing of its nuclear infrastructure. Since it has not yet agreed to such steps, Iran should not be granted the principle.

Any successful negotiation with Iran will require distasteful concessions to a regime whose domestic repression and external aggression are repugnant and a menace to U.S. allies. But a deal that decisively curbs its nuclear capacity is preferable to military action. The Obama administration is right to move forward — but it should work harder to align any deal with its goals and to bring Congress and allies on board.