Iran Nuclear Talks Bring Top Diplomats, But Still No Deal

After a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity in Geneva Friday, Iran and six world powers continued to work on an agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing of some economic sanctions. The arrival of Secretary of State John Kerry and three EU foreign ministers added diplomatic heft — but not speed — to the proceedings.

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And in this part of the program, the intensive and controversial negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The United States has joined six other world powers in trying to strike a deal with Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry is now at the talks in Geneva, fresh from meetings in the Middle East. We're going to talk with former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has advised the Obama administration on Iran. But first, this report from NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iran's foreign minister has said an initial deal could be finalized this week. And technically, that's still possible with the week ending Saturday at midnight. Hopes for an agreement began to rise when Kerry diverted from his Mideast/North Africa tour to come to Geneva. The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany quickly followed suit, raising expectations further. But as he arrived in the city, Kerry focused on the differences that remain.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: I want to emphasize, there are still some very important issues on the table that are unresolved. It is important for those to be properly, thoroughly addressed. I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time.

KENYON: And as the day dragged into evening, Kerry canceled the North Africa portion of his itinerary and settled in for a meeting with lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad-Zarif. More diplomatic arrivals were announced. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a Chinese deputy foreign minister are expected to arrive Saturday morning.

The nuclear restrictions Iran might undertake in the first step may include suspending the production of 20 percent enriched uranium, relatively close to weapons grade, as well as reducing its existing 20 percent enriched stockpile and limiting the number of centrifuges it would have in operation. In return for that, plus enhanced verification, Iran would receive limited and reversible easing of sanctions. The intention is to effectively halt Iran's nuclear progress while negotiators tackle a comprehensive agreement over the coming months.

As expected, Iran's sharpest critics were not pleased. Before coming to Geneva, Kerry briefed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who fumed that the Iranians were walking around very satisfied in Geneva.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: As well they should be because they got everything and paid nothing - everything they wanted. They're paying nothing because they're not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability. So Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal. This is a very bad deal.

KENYON: In fact, if the agreement conforms to the descriptions offered thus far, the Iranians are by no means getting everything they want. Still, opponents of the nuclear deal have hailed Netanyahu for pressing a forceful, maximalist approach that demands a complete dismantling of the enrichment program and unprecedented transparency. Longtime arms control expert, Robert Einhorn, says such an approach is understandable in the context of Israel's security. But in the context of getting a workable agreement, it's unrealistic and could even threaten the unity of the international side known as the P5+1.

ROBERT EINHORN: First of all, it's not achievable. I don't think any Iranian government could sell that deal at home. I think it's just inconceivable. But I think it would be unwise even to try because it would paint the U.S. and its P5+1 partners as the intransigent party in the negotiations.

KENYON: When talks resume Saturday, they will effectively be at the ministerial level, and the world will be watching to see if nuclear diplomacy can score a modest success. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Geneva.

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