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If the US can’t hold Iran, it must know when — and how — to fold

The time to revive the nuclear deal is running short.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani in Vienna on Dec. 27.ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and its international partners have been hailing what they call steady, if slow, progress in the latest round of talks in Vienna this week on resuscitating the Iran nuclear deal. But time is not on the Biden administration’s side as it seeks to negotiate a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The longer it takes, the less valuable a return to the deal with Iran will be, particularly if the Iranians continue to shorten their nuclear breakout time —which US officials say is already alarmingly short: as brief as a couple of months.


If that breakout time whittles down to weeks, the deal may no longer be worth saving. US officials, negotiating indirectly with Iran, must do everything they can to try to revive the agreement as soon as possible, including acknowledging that the United States is to blame for gravely wounding what had been a working pact when Donald Trump pulled out. We should be willing to eat a little crow if it gives Tehran a symbolic win to bring Iran back to the table with a goal of getting it to scale back its nuclear program.

But the United States must also be careful not to blow what leverage it has by agreeing to ease sanctions — including unfreezing billions of dollars of Iranian assets — unless Iran commits to rejoin the deal and halt its nuclear program. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, the United States must know when to hold, know when to fold, and know when to walk away from the JCPOA and instead seek alternative diplomatic options to keep Iran from becoming nuclear capable.

The parties are in a different place than when the deal was finalized, in 2015, said Eric Brewer, deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


“What has changed this time around is that Iran’s nuclear program is for more advanced than it was then,” said Brewer, who is also former director for counterproliferation at the National Security Council.

Iran has not only built up its capabilities, but also its nuclear know-how.

“You can take out centrifuges, but you can’t take back the knowledge,” Brewer said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged that reality, even as he said there was no calendar deadline to negotiate a return to the abandoned deal. Iran’s own actions, he underscored, would determine when it will be too late.

“The clock will run out when our experts determine that a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA would not be in the national interest of the United States precisely because the advancements in Iran’s nuclear program will have so watered down the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA,” Price told reporters Tuesday.

Some officials close to the talks told Politico that that deadline would arrive by late January or early February.

At stake is billions of dollars of Iranian money that has been frozen in banks in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere — money Tehran wants in order to shore up Iran’s faltering economy.

But it may very well be the case that Iran is slow-walking talks in an effort to run out the clock and get closer to building a functioning nuclear program.


If that’s the case, the United States has other, if less ideal, options aside from a return to the JCPOA. It can seek smaller deals, requiring Iran to take concrete steps to halt advancement of its nuclear program in exchange for smaller forms of sanctions relief. Call it diplomatic small ball.

That may not work as well as the JCPOA did before the Trump administration exited the pact, but it’s better than having nothing at all — particularly if time runs out and the old pact is no longer worth saving. And it’s certainly a vast improvement over the failed so-called maximum pressure campaign the previous administration bet on and lost.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.