AS THE YEAR begins, the Obama administration and its diplomatic partners are expecting the renewal of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, after a six-month hiatus. But there is scant indication that a breakthrough is in store. The international coalition, composed of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, intends to offer a slightly modified version of the deal Tehran rejected last June, with the faint hope that the pain of economic sanctions might have caused Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to soften. But there is no public sign of that: In fact, Iran has been slow to agree to a new meeting and, according to the New York Times, did not respond to a post-election feeler by the Obama administration on direct, bilateral talks.
The coalition proposal, portrayed as a confidence-building step, would address the most dangerous part of Iran’s program by requiring a freeze in the enrichment of uranium to a level of 20 percent, which is a short step from bomb-grade, and by shutting down the underground facility known as Fordow, where that enrichment takes place. Iran would also be required to ship its current stockpile of medium-enriched uranium out of the country. In return, it would receive certain economic concessions, like spare airplane parts, and perhaps a partial relaxation of some sanctions.
As it made clear in June, however, Iran expects far more from any agreement. It wants the sanctions lifted entirely and for the Security Council to recognize its “right” to enrich uranium, despite multiple resolutions ordering it to cease. Iranian negotiators have also indicated they want to connect a nuclear accord to the civil war in Syria, where Iran is seeking to preserve its place as a privileged strategic ally.
Most of these demands are rightly unacceptable to the Obama administration: Syria’s future relationship with Iran, for example, must be determined by Syrians following the removal of the Assad government, not by an international pact. But the willingness of the Khamenei regime to settle for less may be constrained by an ongoing power struggle between religious conservatives and nationalists, which could come to a head with the presidential election scheduled for June.
At the same time, the United States — and more so Israel — cannot easily wait many more months for a deal. If Iran continues to enrich uranium to 20 percent at its present rate, it may acquire enough to quickly make a bomb by the middle of this year, potentially giving it the “breakout capacity” that both President Obama and the Israeli government have vowed to prevent. Tehran would have crossed that line last fall had it not diverted a large part of its stockpile to fabricate fuel for a research reactor.
The administration can hope that Iran will continue to keep its uranium stockpile below the breakout threshold, or that it will reverse itself and accept some version of the proposed interim deal. But if negotiations remain stalled, Mr. Obama should consider making Iran a comprehensive offer that would permanently restrict its uranium enrichment and provide for intensive international monitoring in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. That would have the advantage of confronting the regime with a stark choice — and making clear whether a diplomatic solution exists.