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Iran nuclear talks extended after failing to reach deal: what you need to know

John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
(Ronald Zak/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. On Monday morning, international negotiators in Vienna announced they had failed to arrive at a deal on Iran's nuclear program. Monday was the deadline.
  2. The talks aren't over, however. The new deadline is to reach an agreement on the broad-brush questions by March 1, and a fully detailed arrangement by July 1.
  3. An interim agreement they reached last year will remain in place. Iran will also be allowed to access an additional $700 million per month worth of international assets that had been frozen.

There is no agreement on Iran's nuclear program

Make no mistake: the current round of Iran talks in Vienna have failed. November 24 was the deadline for the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany) to have concluded a deal with Iran over the country's ongoing nuclear program. They haven't.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind any deal is to put safeguards in place that prevent Iran's nuclear facilities from manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Iran, for its part, would get some relief from the crushing sanctions imposed by the United States and other international powers.

There are a lot of moving parts in this deal, which is part of what makes it so complicated. For example: how many centrifuges, the device used for enriching uranium to the level it needs for a bomb, is Iran allowed to have in operation? How can the international community verify that Iran's not cheating? And how much sanctions relief will Iran get? It's not clear which of these details have held up negotiations so far — or if the problem is more about politics — but it is clear that there's no consensus on them yet.

The talks aren't dead — yet

kerry zarif iran nuclear

Kerry (R) and Zarif (L) shake hands as Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yussef bin Alawi (2nd R) and former EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton watch. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

International negotiators aren't giving up just yet. According to Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, the talks have made "some significant progress." Iran and the P5+1 will meet again to resume negotiations in December.

The idea going forward is to do the deal in two parts. The first is to develop a "political" or "headline" agreement by March 1. This would be a fairly broad understanding about the shape of the deal, which would likely include terms on major issues like centrifuges and inspections.

Then, by July 1, this headline agreement is supposed to be turned into a specific agreement that covers all of the details of how the political agreement would work in practice.

Iran won an improvement over last year's interim deal

netanyahu iran bomb diagram

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu diagrams Iran's progress towards a nuclear bomb at the 2012 UN General Assembly. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The interim deal reached in 2013, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), will remain in place. JPOA is a temporary deal that gives Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for a number of concessions on nuclear issues. Most notably, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent u-235, a kind of uranium that is not enriched enough for a nuclear warhead but that is partway there.

What's new is that Iran got an additional sweetener out of the current negotiations. As part of the sanctions regime, about $100 billion worth of Iranian assets had been frozen. While negotiations continue, Iran will get to unfreeze about $700 million of this frozen money per month. That's not a huge deal, but it's not nothing either, and it's meant to convince Iran to keep talking.

Why does this extension matter?

The stakes in these talks are very high. If there's no deal to limit Iran's nuclear program, the only other options are letting Iran become the world's 10th nuclear-armed power (if it chooses to build a bomb) or starting a war.

The optimistic view is that perhaps these talks are only a temporary failure, and really did lay the groundwork for a future deal, in which case the extension will end up being non-fatal. But the pessimistic view is that the extension signals that a deal is fundamentally impossible. If that's the case, then it's very bad news indeed.

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