International Negotiations Continue Over Iran's Nuclear Program

Another round of negotiations on Iran's suspect nuclear program got underway Tuesday in the Kazakhstani city of Almaty. Iran's envoys are pushing for relief from a vast array of economic sanctions while the U.S. and its partners in the so-called P-5 plus Germany are looking for signs that Tehran is prepared to roll back its nuclear program.

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Now to the talks themselves and NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is there in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: So to start, did anything come out of this first day of talks?

KENYON: Well, the talks themselves are off-limits to the media, as usual. But the word trickling out from the various delegations describes a positive atmosphere and a useful meeting, as the EU spokesman put it. Now, the Iranian journalists who were here say their delegations came armed with several different proposals of their own. And they were expected to put forward one of those, the one that they believe most closely matches the scope of the offer from the international side. So that speaks to a fairly serious engagement. Whether that happens and to what extent, we're still waiting to hear.

And for their part, the U.S. and British officials say they're trying to show Iran that there is a way forward toward some sanctions relief, if Iran is willing to take the necessary steps.

And I guess we should note, the good atmospherics included a rare instance of U.S.-Iranian solidarity, though not on the nuclear issue. Both countries, it turns out, are strongly opposed to the preliminary decision to drop wrestling from the Olympic Games.

CORNISH: And you've given us a sense of atmospherics but what sense could you get about what could actually come from these negotiations, if all goes well?

KENYON: Well, it'll depend on the details of the offer and especially the response of the Iranians. It's believed that the international offer, which has not been detailed to us yet, includes relatively modest relief from some of the restrictions that are now plaguing the economy so badly in Iran.

This is the first time that's been offered, we should note. It would be far short of what Iran wants and most likely asks far more of Iran that it wanted to give, such as the closing of the underground enrichment facility at Fordow. But it's not likely Iran would have to agree to such strong measures here. Western officials say they'll view this as positive round, if both sides agree that this is a proposal they can work with and get an agreement to meet again soon, possibly at a technical level to set up future meetings.

CORNISH: So even if both sides have proposals it sounds like this is still precarious.

KENYON: Oh absolutely. Even the optimists here, you know, they're suggesting both sides want to emerge with some kind of agreement that continues the process and may lead to further concessions down the road. But it will take a lot of confidence building to overcome decades of hatred and mistrust.

I mean, you can look at hard-liners in the West, they'll be saying, wait, this is no time to be offering any sanctions relief; no time to ease up on the pressure. And hard-liners in Iran will be saying, wait, you can never make any concessions in the face of such pressure - that amounts to surrender and we won't tolerate that.

So these are the hurdles that have to be overcome. And that is probably why they're sticking to this incremental approach, 'cause there's not much hope of a grand bargain at this point.

CORNISH: Peter, for little more context, tell us why this meeting is happening in Kazakhstan.

KENYON: Well, the Iranians favored this. But Western officials also like it because of the symbolism. Back in the 1990s, Kazakhstan had inherited a bunch of nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union. They agreed to give them up and they have received substantial economic aid as a result. In fact, they're going to start a fuel bank for enriched uranium for other countries that want to establish transparent, peaceful nuclear energy programs.

CORNISH: And, Peter, one last thing, how long will they be there?

KENYON: Talks are going to resume tomorrow and they should wrap up tomorrow. We won't know that until it happens, though.

CORNISH: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking with us from Kazakhstan, where talks are taking place about Iran's nuclear program. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Audie.

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