Not much has gone right in the Middle East during President Obama's second term. The White House has been hoping that a nuclear deal with Iran would yield the foreign policy success Washington badly needs after a string of reverses across the region.

But after a weekend of last-ditch diplomacy in Vienna, the deadline for striking such a deal expired yesterday. The anticlimactic result was an agreement to keep talking.

Even that is too much for hardline skeptics, here and abroad, who believe Iran is stringing the world along and has no intention of giving up its nuclear program. In their view, extending the talks another seven months grants Tehran unearned relief from economic sanctions as well as immunity from military strikes to destroy its nuclear facilities.

So is the Obama administration right to give diplomacy another chance? It's a close call. As Winston Churchill noted, "jaw-jaw" is usually preferable to "war-war." On the other hand, a year of intense haggling with Tehran has failed to resolve the core issues in dispute.


The negotiations remain snagged on three main issues: the amount of fuel Iran can enrich; how long its nuclear facilities should be subjected to intrusive inspections to verify compliance; and how quickly international sanctions would be lifted. In addition, there's concern that Iran's nearly complete heavy-water reactor at Arak will produce plutonium, which would give Tehran a second path to nuclear weapons. And United Nations inspectors want access to military sites to assess Iran's capacity to put nuclear warheads on missiles.

Given the magnitude of such differences, it's easy to be pessimistic about nuclear diplomacy with Iran. On balance, however, giving the talks a little more time is a gamble worth taking. This conclusion is not a vote of confidence in Iran, or even in Obama. Rather, it reflects the reality that all the other alternatives are worse.

Under the interim agreement reached a year ago, Iran has frozen high-level enrichment of uranium, which produces fissile material that could be used to make nuclear weapons. That's a substantial concession, and it could be undone if negotiations break down. In that case, Congress doubtless would ratchet up sanctions, but economic hardship alone won't bring Iran to heel. The abandonment of diplomacy also would set war drums beating loudly again in Washington and Jerusalem.

All this could upset the rare alignment of great powers that have joined America in the talks: Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. And it would leave the world without a way to test the sincerity of Iran's claim that it wants civilian nuclear energy, not the Bomb.

The White House is whipsawed between an Iranian government with a split personality and a formidable phalanx of critics that includes members of Congress from both parties, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and America's Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia. The naysayers worry that Obama is too eager to strike a bargain with Tehran.

Last week, 43 Republican senators sent the president a letter threatening to ramp up sanctions on Iran if there's no agreement soon. They also demanded that the White House agree to seek congressional approval before lifting sanctions. Otherwise, "we see no way that any agreement consisting of your administration's current proposals to Iran will endure in the (next) Congress and after your presidential term."

And it's not just Republicans. Some leading Democrats, such as Sens. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress MORE (N.Y.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week Sanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale Sanders push to block arms sale to Israel doomed in Senate MORE (N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also have called for ramping up sanctions if Iran refuses to come to terms. "I believe no deal is better than a bad deal," moderate Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBiden prepares to confront Putin Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema MORE (D-Del.) said last week.

If anything, the political obstacles in Iran to a deal are even more daunting. There's little doubt that the relatively moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani would like to get Iran out from under sanctions that have hobbled its economy. But everyone agrees that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be the ultimate arbiter of any bargain struck with an infidel coalition led by the United States — the "Great Satan" to Khamenei.

Khamenei is adamant that Iran will accept no limits on its "right" to enrich fuel for civilian nuclear power. He's cited plunging gas prices as further proof that Iran can't rely on its abundant oil reserves but also needs atomic energy as well.

This position is fundamentally incompatible with demands by U.S. conservatives that Iran stop enriching uranium altogether. Those critics have a point: The same technologies that generate fuel for power plants also move Iraq disconcertingly close to the threshold of nuclear weapons. What they don't have is a plausible theory for how to prevent Iran from crossing that threshold if it's determined to do so.

For all the bold talk in Washington about not taking force "off the table," the American people don't seem eager to add a new war with Iran to our other military entanglements in the Middle East. Even if they were, U.S. military officials caution that air strikes would only set back Iran's nuclear program temporarily, while bolstering the hardliners' argument that Iran needs nuclear weapons to deter U.S. aggression. They point out that Americans aren't contemplating strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities.

In truth, threatening war is not a terribly effective counter-proliferation strategy. No amount of air and missile strikes will destroy the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons.

At the very least, extending talks with Iran buys time — six months to a year before a potential nuclear breakout — while holding out hope for a comprehensive political solution to the standoff. Not talking risks escalating the crisis at a moment when America already is fully engaged in putting out fires across the Middle East.

When you have no good options, the best course is to embrace the least bad. That's what President Obama has done, and both Congress and America's allies should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.