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Talks On Iran's Nuclear Program Try Again For Deal


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

This time, a deal may finally be within reach. Diplomats from six nations, including Russia and China, and led by the U.S. are gathered in Geneva to take up again the future of Iran's nuclear program.

INSKEEP: They may accomplish nothing, but there are positive signals. Iran's foreign minister appears to have removed one of the main obstacles to an agreement.

MONTAGNE: And in Washington, D.C., after a meeting at the White House, members of Congress suggested they would not take up tough new sanctions against Iran before next month, sanctions that the Obama administration said would undermine the diplomatic effort.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is back in Geneva to cover the talks, and joins us now. Welcome.


MONTAGNE: So, in the run-up to these talks, there's been a warm-and-fuzzy video with a personal appeal from the Iranian foreign minister, and also some signals that there could be progress in store. So tell us more about that.

KENYON: Well, Mohammad Javad Zarif's latest public outreach is this video called "Iran's Message to the World." Now, the message is generally reassuring, and the video actually looks like something you might see in an election campaign, complete with shots of Zarif striding through the Foreign Ministry, accompanied by tinkly piano music.


MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: For us Iranians, nuclear energy is not about joining a club or threatening others. Nuclear energy is about a leap, a jump toward deciding our own destiny.

KENYON: Now, Zarif made some more substantive comments recently, as well, and that came in an interview with the ISNA news agency. And there, he appears willing to drop Iran's demand that the U.S. and its allies recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium. This has been a longstanding problem. Tehran has always said the NPT, the Non Proliferation Treaty, gives it the right to enrich. The U.S. disagrees, saying: Look, a number of countries have nuclear energy, and they don't enrich their own uranium.

But in this interview, Zarif suddenly said the Iranians see no necessity for its recognition, because it's an inalienable right. Now, this isn't an official concession, of course, until it's mentioned at the negotiating table. But it is a hopeful sign that one of the key sticking points may be falling away.

MONTAGNE: There are, of course, other issues to be finalized, as well. What do we know about those, where they stand?

KENYON: Well, there's a couple that have been mentioned in public. And they include Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, especially the bit that's enriched to nearly 20 percent, because that's closer to weapons-grade fuel and the rest of the stockpile.

Now, Iran maybe willing to convert some of that from a gas form, which is what you use to enrich down to an oxide form, which is what you would put in the medical research reactor, which is what it's supposed to be for. Critics aren't happy with that. They'd like to see the fuel shipped out of Iran altogether. So far, Tehran has resisted that idea.

The other issue is the heavy water reactor at Arak, which will produce plutonium, which could be a weapons fuel. That will only happen if Iran finishes building it and brings it online. One question is whether Iran gets to keep on construction work during the first phase of an agreement. That should last several months.

The latest U.N. nuclear agency report on Iran says haven't been doing that much work at Arak recently. But critics aren't satisfied. They don't trust Iran. And, of course, there may be some other issues that haven't been discussed yet in public.

MONTAGNE: And, Peter, the last time you were in Geneva - and that was just a couple of weeks ago - we saw Secretary of State John Kerry and four other foreign ministers descend on the talks. I mean, no videos, but a lot of diplomatic drama. They - top diplomats. And they were - went into marathon discussions. Anything like that likely to happen this week?

KENYON: That is one of the really big questions this week. We've heard that Secretary Kerry's cancelled some other travel plans, so it's always possible. Nothing confirmed at this point. You know, analysts say, you know, after that last round, all those diplomatic heavyweights, they were something of a problem, logistically, took a lot of time up. But, on the other hand, it also allowed for high-level decision-making, not least within the six world powers themselves. And, of course, the U.S., Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany don't see eye-to-eye on all the issues.

And last time, we saw France described as the hardliner on the team. So we'll be watching now to see the dynamics there. And we will be a bit more cautious if these higher-ups do come in about predicting an imminent deal.

MONTAGNE: This momentum toward what is called a first-step agreement, it seems to be strong, but there are very strong critics on the other side.

KENYON: They have not gone away, not by any means. The Israeli prime minister still calls this a bad deal. Members of Congress, while they may be prepared to hold off for now on even more sanctions, are not convinced that the administration is on the right track and offering even limited sanctions relief to Iran. In Iran, meanwhile, there was a rally around the underground nuclear facility at Fordow. Lawmakers in Iran say they should just keep enriching uranium.

So, the opposition is strong. And analysts say the negotiators would do well to nail something down soon while they still have this momentum, because if they get this first step agreed to, then the really hard negotiating begins on a comprehensive deal.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon, in Geneva. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.