Why the Iranian Nuclear Standoff Won't End Anytime Soon

Both sides are more comfortable with the status quo -- and it will likely endure.
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Talks on Iran's nuclear program in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26, 2013. (Reuters)

Heading into this past weekend's negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials were expressing cautious optimism. In the previous round of talks in February, Iran seemed willing to consider a new proposal that would constrain its ability to produce high-enriched uranium in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi touted the talks as " a milestone," and the prospects for a deal seemed better than ever.

But at the follow-up session held on April 5th and 6th, these hopes were quickly dashed. On Friday, Iranian negotiators essentially reiterated the general position they took last June in Moscow, insisting on recognition of their country's right to enrich uranium. This baffled the United States and its allies, who had expected Tehran to respond to the specific proposal put forward in February. When negotiations wrapped up on Saturday, the EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, lamented that Iran and the world powers " remain far apart." No future meetings were scheduled.

Despite the rhetoric of crisis, the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program may have reached a balance.

However disappointing, the failure of the negotiations should come as no surprise. The seasonal predictions that the Iranian standoff is nearing a climax -- whether by compromise or by war -- are grounded in a misreading of the situation. What many have considered a crisis is starting to look more like a balance, in which each party is more comfortable with the status quo than with any available alternative. Despite the pressure of sanctions, Tehran is more inclined to stand its ground than make a deal, and Washington prefers the present impasse to war. Only if the Islamic Republic took concrete steps to build a nuclear weapon would the United States strike Iran -- a consequence Tehran understands well and will thus avoid.

Iran and the United States each profess an interest in compromise, but the fact remains that a grand bargain is improbable. That is because the Iranian regime believes it has more to gain from preserving the status quo than acquiescing to a deal that would effectively preclude it from ever possessing the ability to quickly build nuclear weapons -- a position that in and of itself can deter aggression. Encircled by wealthy Sunni monarchies and U.S. allies, Iran would rather hold on to its partial nuclear deterrent than cave to Western demands.

Moreover, although international sanctions have taken a severe toll on Iran's economy, there is little sign that they have weakened the Iranian regime. Tehran has pointed to the sanctions to justify its tightening stranglehold over the Iranian people. Meanwhile, according to a recent Gallup poll, nearly five times as many Iranians hold the United States, rather than their own leaders, as " most responsible " for the sanctions. Finally, for all its distortions of history, the Iranian regime knows that, in the past, economic self-interest has often trumped the international community's will to maintain sanctions over time. With surging demand for energy in such countries as China and India, multilateral sanctions against oil-rich Iran are more likely to fray than intensify in the years ahead -- especially if Tehran does not go all the way to building nuclear weapons.

Presented by

Benjamin Alter and Edward Fishman are editors at Foreign Affairs.

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