June 19, 2012

NEGOTIATIONS WITH Iran about its nuclear program are close to an impasse — an outcome that should surprise no one. At a meeting in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday, Iranian envoys continued to resist a proposal for an interim deal that would stop the most dangerous parts of the program in exchange for modest economic concessions from a coalition composed of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany. Iran countered with maximalist demands for the lifting of sanctions and recognition of its right to enrich uranium. “It remains clear that there are significant gaps,” said a sober statement by the European Union’s Catherine Ashton.

If there is a positive aspect to this outcome, it is that the United States and its partners appear to be sticking to their position on what Iran must do to open the door to a diplomatic solution — and are prepared to let the process lapse. No further negotiations have been scheduled — only an experts’ session early next month to go over technical details, followed by contacts between the deputies and chiefs of the delegations. Western officials say further meetings will depend on whether Iran shows itself ready to carry out the package of steps originally proposed last month, including a freeze of its most advanced form of uranium enrichment, the export of its existing stockpile of that enriched uranium, and the closure of an underground processing facility known as Fordow. “The choice is Iran’s,” said Ms. Ashton’s statement.

Before Tehran makes that choice, some of the sanctions it has been trying to head off will go into effect, including an E.U. oil embargo and a block on insurance for ships carrying Iranian oil. Already Iranian oil exports, and the country’s economy at large, appear to have been significantly damaged in recent months. Since the collapse of negotiations could also prompt Israel to move toward the military action it has been threatening, it’s still conceivable that Iranian leader Ali Khamenei will decide to accept the interim package — which would leave most of Iran’s enrichment infrastructure in place — rather than risk economic ruin and war.

The Obama administration must nevertheless be prepared to take an Iranian “no” for an answer. It should resist any effort by Russia or other members of the international coalition to weaken the steps that Iran must take, or to grant Tehran major sanctions relief for partial concessions. It should continue to reject recognition of an Iranian “right” to enrich uranium.

The United States and its allies also should have a strategy for quickly and significantly increasing the pressure on the Khamenei regime if the negotiations break down. Israel may press for military action; if that option is to be resisted, there must be a credible and robust alternative.