6-Nation Nuclear Talks On Iran May Restart Soon

Another round of negotiations over Iran's suspect nuclear program is tentatively set for early next month. But the United States and key European powers have yet to set a clear agenda. And there are persistent reports that Iran's uranium enrichment program has run into trouble recently.

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Iran may resume nuclear talks with a six-nation alliance next month, an alliance that includes the United States. Western analysts say U.N. sanctions, and technical problems with its nuclear program, are squeezing Iran more than its leaders care to admit.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has more.

PETER KENYON: The talks - between Iran's nuclear negotiators and representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany - have been dormant for more than a year. Even as the suggested date approaches, the agenda remains murky. The main thing the Obama administration wants to talk about - Iran's continued enrichment of uranium - is not a topic Iranian officials say they care to discuss.

Recent news is focused on problems hampering Iran's enrichment program. A computer worm named Stuxnet was reported, apparently designed to target centrifuges like the ones Iran uses. Then a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that thousands of centrifuges had been abruptly taken offline for a short time.

Analysts speculated that the computer malware may have played a role in this, although Iran's nuclear chief denied it.

Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said in an interview before the IAEA report became public that there could be a number of reasons for the problems with the centrifuges. But the evidence is strong that the pace and efficiency of enrichment has suffered.

Mr. MARK FITZPATRICK (Senior Fellow for Nonproliferation, International Institute for Strategic Studies in London): Well, certainly, Iran's enrichment program has been encountering difficulties. Why, exactly, this is, is not clear. But the machines are continuing to break down.

KENYON: International negotiators have sought to convince Iran to give up the bulk of its enriched uranium in exchange for fuel rods produced elsewhere, that would power a medical research reactor in Tehran.

Fitzpatrick says the reason last year's fuel swap proposal is no longer appealing is that despite the setbacks, Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium keeps growing all the time.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: You know, the long and short of it is when Iran boasts of tremendous progress in their program, that's just not the case. When some of us would like to hope that the program is becoming hopelessly mired in problems, that's not the case, either. It's bumbling along, continuing to increase the stockpile of low-enriched uranium at over 100 kilograms a month.

KENYON: At that pace, many analysts believe there's more time for diplomacy than had previously been thought. But to date, there's been no evidence that the U.S. or its allies have come up with a diplomatic approach other than the pressure of sanctions, and the threat of military force.

Istanbul-based analyst Alptekin Dursunoglu says the debate inside Iran reveals unhappiness with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's behavior. But that, he says, is outweighed by Iranian resentment at the heavy-handed negotiating style of the West over a nuclear program that has support across the political spectrum.

Mr. ALPTEKIN DURSUNOGLU (Analyst): (Through translator) Iran is willing to sit down with Western powers within the framework of the nonproliferation treaty. But Iran is saying: Do not come to us with the sole option that we stop all enrichment just because you have some sort of worries. Because frankly, those worries are of no concern to us, and we don't believe they're grounded in reality.

KENYON: But while Iranians believe their nuclear program should be presumed innocent until proved otherwise, Western powers - and to varying degrees, Russia, China and India - argue that it's up to Tehran to prove a negative, that it is not working to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Analysts say based on the public comments to date, that gap is likely to remain unbridged for some time to come.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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