On Sunday, the New York Times ran an editorial that compares President Barack Obama with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—they’re clearly both moderates facing hard liners in their own governments—and provided an explanation Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s intransigence, claiming:

But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will have the last word on any agreement, voiced new doubts on Wednesday about whether “the enemy” — America — could be trusted to really lift sanctions.

His skepticism is not unfounded. President Obama has the authority to temporarily ease sanctions on Iran, and he has done that to a limited extent by allowing Iran to receive about $700 million per month in assets frozen abroad under the terms of an interim nuclear agreement that has been in place since November 2013.

Even so, the power to permanently lift most sanctions lies with Congress, where many members deeply mistrust Tehran, and Republican leaders have said that new and stronger sanctions are near the top of their to­do list in the new Congress. Such a move might be justified down the road if negotiations collapse, or if Iran cheats on its commitments. But at this stage it could easily undermine the talks, split the major powers and propel Iran to speed its nuclear development.

The Times acknowledges that Khamenei, despite Obama’s (overly generous) outreach, still considers the United States his “enemy.” This, of course, is not a one-time remark by Khamenei, who regularly rants against “global arrogance” (read: the United States).

The assumption Iranian leaders are counting on here is that they have shown some flexibility, and if the West just shows a bit more patience, Iran will be even more forthcoming. But a Washington Post editorial in October already recognized that despite the administration’s efforts, “[i]f Iran has made similar efforts to bridge the gaps between the two sides, there is no report of them.”

In the current issue of Commentary, Omri Ceren lays the administration’s negotiating tactics bare, exposing them as retreats in the face of Iranian intransigence; and the problems started from the beginning of the Joint Plan of Action, signed in November 2014.

The agreement that administration officials purported to have secured would have been a diplomatic masterstroke. It would have immediately frozen activity across the three core areas of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—uranium enrichment, plutonium-related work, and ballistic-missile development—while dealing with the verification issue that hangs over the entire program. In exchange, the West would have provided what the White House fact sheet characterized as limited, temporary, and reversible relief from some sanctions. It would have lasted for only six months, a decent amount of time to test diplomacy. No diplomatic concessions would have been made up front.

But since American diplomats couldn’t get Iran to agree to a deal in which it would do any of those things, what they actually brought home was the Joint Plan of Action. It allowed Iran to continue making sustained progress along its uranium and plutonium tracks, contained no restrictions on ballistic-missile development, failed to open up Iran’s atomic facilities to verification, provided sufficient economic relief to stabilize Iran’s economy, and would last for at least 18 months.

And it wasn’t even a deal yet. The parties were committed to the contours of a deal that would be outlined and implemented sometime in the future, which would turn out to be January 2014. Until then an “interim before the interim” period took hold, during which Iran was allowed to speed ahead with its nuclear program with zero new restrictions. It was only enough, it seems, to allow the White House to tell lawmakers that progress had been achieved—and that they would have to continue sitting on the sidelines lest they spoil it.

Any concession made by Iran is reversible; and to convince Iran to make them, the West has loosened sanctions to the tune of billions of dollars. With such a dynamic, what incentive does Iran have to make a deal? Iran can keep stringing the West along, saying it’s about to make a deal while not actually dismantling its enrichment program, and still get financial incentives.

As Ceren demonstrates, the administration repeatedly staked out positions, retreated from them, and then hailed the result as success. Of course Iran has no disincentive from accepting such deals. And if agreement is the goal of the negotiations, then the administration has indeed been successful; but if the goal has been to prevent Iran from developing the means to make a nuclear weapon, in that the administration and the West hasn’t been successful.

The editorial ends:

A deal that is verifiable and significantly limits Iran’s nuclear activities can succeed if it both enhances regional security and benefits Iran. There will still be some risk for all sides. But the bigger risk is squandering this moment and leaving Iran free to pursue an unconstrained nuclear program. This would invite more sanctions, new tensions and perhaps even military action and a cyberattack.

Yes, if the negotiations were leading to a verifiable agreement that prevented Iran from developing the means to make a nuclear weapon, it would be worthwhile; but that’s not what’s happening. Iran is getting the West to water down sanctions, render Security Council resolutions obsolete, and effectively give its approval to Iran’s uranium enrichment program in violation of Iran’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. The engagement has’t stopped Iran from pursuing “an unconstrained nuclear program,” it has merely delayed it. The negotiations are allowing Iran to continue its nuclear program with as much approval from the international community as it can garner. When Iran feels there is nothing more to be gained by negotiations, it will pull out and pursue that “unconstrained” program.

And the worst thing that could happen is an aggressive Iran with the threat of nuclear blackmail to back up its destabilization of the Middle East.