THE MOST positive aspect of the negotiations with Iran that opened Saturday was the contrast with the previous, disastrous encounter of the United States and its five partners with Tehran’s negotiators 15 months ago. Then, Iranian representative Saeed Jalili refused even to discuss the country’s nuclear program, insisting that all sanctions be lifted as a precondition to further dialogue. On Saturday in Istanbul, Mr. Jalili made no such demand. Instead he made clear that his government accepts the connection between an accord on its nuclear activities and sanctions relief.
Arguably Mr. Jalili was shifting only from an outrageous and illogical position to one in keeping with Iran’s decision to participate in negotiations. But it was nevertheless enough for the international coalition to agree to hold another round of talks May 23 in Iraq, with preparatory discussions beforehand. Not until then, it seems, will Tehran be pressed on whether it is prepared to take the “confidence-building” steps set out by the Obama administration, including the freezing of its medium-level uranium enrichment, the export of part of its fuel stockpile and the suspension of operations at a new underground plant.
That delay drew a sharp response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Iran “has been given a freebie” because “it has got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation.” Still, the lapse won’t determine whether Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, and it probably won’t make its program invulnerable to Israeli military action. It will bring the parties closer to July 1, when major new sanctions, including an embargo on oil purchases by the European Union, take effect. If the regime of Ali Khamenei genuinely wishes to strike a bargain, that should be clear by then.
For now Tehran is hinting at flexibility: Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi suggested Monday that a deal was possible on the 20-percent-enriched uranium targeted by the international coalition. Yet by any reasonable assessment, it remains unlikely that the regime will agree to the administration’s terms, or settle for something less than major sanctions relief in exchange. A deal that falls short on Iranian deliverables would probably not eliminate Israel’s strong incentive for early military action; one that significantly eases sanctions could be counterproductive in the longer run, as it would remove Iran’s incentive to strike a more lasting bargain. Given the odds against success, and the dangers of further delay, the administration should insist that Iran spell out its intentions by next month.