Talks On Iran's Nuclear Program To Resume In April

Two days of talks on Iran's nuclear program ended in Kazakhstan Tuesday. Although there were no dramatic breakthroughs, officials reported there was enough movement to return to the table in April to try to resolve concerns and questions about the program.

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Iran now says compromise on its nuclear program may be possible. Of course, that comes with a number of ifs. Tehran says that's if international negotiators continue to take what it calls a more realistic approach. The big question, Western officials say, is whether Iran is willing to curb its nuclear activities. That is the message, after a two-day meeting between Iran and six world powers. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Almaty, Kazakhstan where the talks just concluded.

Peter, on the surface this sounds like progress. But were there any real breakthroughs? Did the two sides agree to anything?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The short answer is no. If you're looking for tangible or real progress to hang something on, this is not it. But Western officials say this kind of process is a prerequisite to getting the diplomacy working, and it deserves a chance. The backdrop, of course, is an increasing pile of enriched uranium in Iran, and growing international fears that it may be getting closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon, which Iran says it doesn't want to do.

Now, after these talks, the Iranian negotiators, Saeed Jalili, called it positive. And the reason he said that is because, in his view, the latest proposal from the international side takes into account some of Iran's ideas from the last round in Moscow. He said this is a realistic attitude. If it's a real change in strategy, he says, it could lead to confidence building and real progress.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this was the first time the international negotiators - that would be Britain, France, the U.S., Russia, China and Germany - offered the Iranians some relief from economic sanctions. What are the details? Did it have any impact?

KENYON: The details were hard to come by. The lead international negotiator, Catherine Ashton, said nothing about what was in the proposal. She said the Iranians need time to study it. Now, a senior U.S. official did say that a number of significant U.S. and E.U. sanctions would be lifted if Iran agrees to this deal - but not the heavy hitters. That is, not the banking and the energy sanctions, they would remain in place.

Other sanctions would be lifted if Iran agrees to significant curbing of the nuclear program. And that includes temporarily shuttering the underground nuclear facility at Fordow. This is a difficult issue for Tehran. Now, this has slightly changed from a straight call to close it permanently. Presumably under this early confidence building stage, the Iranians could restart Fordow again fairly easily. But they would have to, at least, temporarily close it. And that's the proposal on the table right now.

WERTHEIMER: Did we learn anything more about the crucial issue, the ongoing enrichment of uranium - how much is there?

KENYON: We did learn, somewhat, about that and that is also from senior U.S. official. This proposal would require Iran to agree to give up a good deal of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. And this, of course, is of the biggest concern to the West, because this is the uranium that can relatively easily be enhanced to weapons grade.

Now, it wouldn't have to give up - Iran would not have to give up all of its 20 percent uranium. It would be permitted, we're told, to keep what's necessary for medical research. Now, the precise details of exactly how much that means, and how they would have to dispose of the rest, are left to be worked out in future meetings. But that's what's happening on that front.

WERTHEIMER: So far then, they've agreed to hold talks on technical issues and then meet again in April. How long do you imagine that this state of affairs could go on?

KENYON: Well, this is the ultimate question. I mean some analysts are worrying that Iran seems happy to keep things in the proposal stage indefinitely, while it continues to enrich uranium. And they worry that Iran doesn't take, seriously, the periodic rumblings from Israel and other hard-liners about the need for military action to set back Iran's nuclear program by force.

Now, on the other hand, we do have more meetings set during a politically sensitive time for Iran - with elections coming up there. So some say let's keep talking, see if we can get the two sides to get to the real bargaining stage. The question is whether they can get there before anxiety gets so high that military intervention, or perhaps, a stepping up of covert operations comes back to the fore.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Almaty in Kazakhstan. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Linda.

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