“I love deadlines,” wrote the British humorist Douglas Adams. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” On Tuesday, a deadline for Iran and six world powers to reach a deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program whooshed by—for the fourth time since an interim nuclear agreement was signed in November 2013.
"We are interpreting in a flexible way our deadline, which means that we are taking the time, the days we still need, to finalize the agreement," European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters in Vienna. Mogherini, confusingly, said that the continuation of talks past the Tuesday deadline—which was set after the parties failed to meet an earlier deadline on June 30th—“does not mean we are extending our deadline,” only that negotiations were continuing.
Just to be safe, the United States announced that it had extended the terms of the 2013 interim nuclear deal with Iran until Friday. Despite the flexibility on timing, the nuclear negotiations have dealt in a lot of rhetorical absolutes, for instance Secretary of State John Kerry’s continuing threats to walk away if Iran doesn’t budge on key issues. Given this disconnect, it’s worth asking what the deadlines actually mean in these negotiations, especially as they continue to be extended.