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In Iran-West nuclear talks, a new deadline is a lifeline

By not walking away from their talks after the Nov. 24 deadline, Iran and the US-led big powers indicate progress has been made amid a rising level of trust. That trust must be further built up to persuade each side's hardline critics that a deal is viable.

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, in Vienna, Austria, prior to the Nov. 23 talks over the Iranian nuclear program.
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In hard-core diplomacy, trust can sometimes show up in unexpected ways. That was certainly the case when Iran and six world powers decided to extend their negotiations beyond a Nov. 24 deadline. Neither side walked away from the talks, which focus on Iran’s nuclear program. And by setting a new deadline of July 1, 2015, they each acknowledge that enough progress – dare we say trust? – has been achieved to keep probing for more compromises and new ideas.

The continuation of talks, of course, is not a final agreement, one that could avert a war in the Middle East and ensure Iran lives up to its stated intention not to make an atomic bomb. But if we compare the situation now with the estrangement of a decade ago, when distrust between Iran and the West was seen as inevitable, the world should be grateful that each side now appears to show some confidence that the other is a worthwhile partner in striking a deal.

Why pin so much on the talks not breaking down in finger-pointing distrust? Because Iran will eventually need to trust that the United States and other powers will lift the crippling sanctions on its economy. And the West, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, will need to trust that Iran will limit its uranium enrichment below bomb-grade quality and allow intrusive inspections of its facilities by international inspectors.

Just as important, trust between the negotiators is necessary for each camp to convince hard-liners in their domestic politics that a deal will stick. Few outsiders know if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has softened in his suspicions that the US seeks regime change in Tehran as its ultimate goal. And Israel’s right-wing government and its strongest allies in the US Congress seem to have zero faith in Iran ever changing its antipathy toward Israel’s existence.

Winning a deal on the nuclear issue would be just the start in reaching larger goals, such as creating a US-Iran détente and finding out if Iran wants to be a Middle East peacemaker, allowing it to focus on the needs of its restless population rather than dominate the region by intimidation.

A year ago, Iran froze its nuclear program in return for a slight easing of sanctions in order to keep the talks alive. Now, without having made any concessions, each side wants to move ahead with more talks. Each step in confidence-building makes it easier to settle the big issues. Threats and pressure got the two sides to the negotiating table. Now trust is getting them toward an agreement.

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