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Talks To Limit Iran's Nuclear Program In A Critical Phase


Talks to limit Iran's nuclear program are in a critical phase. The temporary deal that eased some economic sanctions and capped Iran's program expires in a couple of weeks. Negotiators are talking to each other, but publicly they've gone quiet and they say secrecy is essential. That's only adding to the anxiety and the allegations outside the talks. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Oman following these negotiations. And, Peter, last night Secretary of State Kerry ended talks there with the Iranian foreign minister. What do you know about how that went?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, they were intensive talks, Robert. They were extended right up to the very last minute. The secretary had to dash for a plane to China. And what's really remarkable is what we don't know about the talks, which is almost everything. We know the major differences are, on the one hand, Iran's ability to enrich uranium - that concerns the West. And for Iran, the biggest issue is how and when economic sanctions are going to be lifted against their country. But as for the crucial question of whether they made progress or not on either of those big questions, we learned almost nothing.

SIEGEL: And why are the talks growing more secretive at this point?

KENYON: Well, it's not as if they were ever totally open, but we would get leaks from time to time early on. They were more or less easily dismissed as trial balloons. But now it's much harder to find information out. The talks have reached kind of a sensitive stage. We've seen dozens, hundreds of ideas even, passed back and forth. But both sides are not talking about those now. They're just saying the remaining differences are big but now we're looking for solutions. We're not just talking past each other.

SIEGEL: The rhetoric surrounding the talks is growing harsher. Iran's supreme leader lashed out again at Israel, this time on his Twitter feed, just as the nuclear talks enter a critical phase. Tell us about what he posted and why people think he might have done that.

KENYON: Well, the supreme leader, who has both a Facebook and Twitter account, has taken another modern trend. He's posting online lists, but his lists - Ayatollah Khamenei's lists - have titles like "9 Key Questions About The Elimination Of Israel." One of the items makes clear he's not talking about striking against Israel militarily, but in another he calls for things like a referendum, but one that the Jewish Israelis wouldn't get to vote in. It could be that this is Khamenei playing to his base. It could be that he's distancing himself from the whole notion of rapprochement with the West in expectation that these nuclear talks are going to fail. But if you wanted to raise tensions he couldn't have picked an easier way.

SIEGEL: At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the world is offering too many concessions to Iran, a country, he says, is poised to become a threshold nuclear state. Is that view gaining credence?

KENYON: Well, Israel's long been a major opponent of nuclear diplomacy ever since President Obama said no deal is better than a bad deal. Mr. Netanyahu's branded every proposal a very bad deal. But others are in the same camp. The Saudi's are much quieter about it but they are every bit as concerned about an Iran that's part of the world economy, let alone a nuclear-armed Iran. And then you add in opposition in the U.S. Congress, which is only growing stronger in January with the Republican Senate. And you can see that the opponents of this agreement are just growing in many quarters.

SIEGEL: And when Netanyahu uses the phrase threshold state is that a term of art and if so, what does it mean?

KENYON: It is. It means a state that has mastered the nuclear process - the process of enriching fuel, creating warheads, having the ability to make a bomb even if it doesn't have any. You can be a threshold state without a lot of enriched uranium, but if you have the capacity to make it without being detected, that's the big concern.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Oman where he's following the Iran nuclear talks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.