Iran Nuclear Talks Reach 'Critical Stage'

High-level diplomats from several world powers are meeting in Geneva to get an agreement to halt Iran's nuclear progress. But as talks stretch on, optimism seems to be faltering. Guest host Don Gonyea talks with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is in Geneva covering the negotiations.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

To Geneva now, a place international diplomats have been streaming into over the last 24 hours in hope that there will be a breakthrough on Iran's nuclear program. The talks are said to be at a critical stage. But as they stretch on today, the enthusiasm of some world leaders seems to be faltering. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Geneva covering the talks. He joins us now. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: When Secretary of State John Kerry announced he was suddenly heading to Geneva to join the talks, everyone assumed that an agreement was basically all but sealed. But what's happened in the 24 hours since?

KENYON: Well, as negotiators have told us more than once, using their best technical language, this stuff is hard. And, of course, the arrival of Secretary Kerry inevitably raised expectations, as did the other high-level diplomats who came in from France, Britain, Germany and now Russia and China as well. But even as he landed, Kerry warned that significant issues remain unresolved. And that was borne out when his meeting with the two lead negotiators stretched out some five and a half hours without a resolution. And remember, this is just a first step agreement in which all concessions would be reversible. So, if it's this hard now, we can just imagine what the comprehensive talks would be like should they get that far.

GONYEA: I know the details of talks like this are confidential, so we don't know exactly what's happening in the meetings, but diplomats have leaked out a few of the sticking points. What are you hearing?

KENYON: Well, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, mentioned two things - the heavy water reactor in Iraq and Iran's 20 percent-enriched uranium. I'll quickly take them one at a time. The reactor, which would produce plutonium, which is a potential weapons fuel, isn't finished. Iran's expected to keep it offline during a first phase. That could last about six months. But if Iran is also being asked to stop construction, Tehran might demand stronger sanctions relief in return.

One Iranian negotiator said yesterday they want oil and banking sanctions considered now. And that's very unlikely from the international side. Now, on the 20 percent-enriched uranium, that's the closest thing Iran has to weapons-grade fuel. And experts say the issue might be what to do with the existing 20 percent stockpile. Tehran says it won't ship it out of the country. So, that's what we're hearing and, of course, there's probably other issues as well.

GONYEA: Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has joined the talks too. Russia, of course, has closer ties with Tehran than any of the Western countries on this negotiating team. How does his presence alter the equation?

KENYON: Well, that's a bit of a sensitive topic for the P5+1, the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. U.S. and EU officials have steadily praised P5+1 unity. But that's unity, of course, on the end goal, keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, not on the best way to get there. As the talks get closer to finalizing, the question is will Iran appeal to the somewhat friendlier Russian delegation for concessions it might not get otherwise? No sign that's happening yet but it's definitely something we're watching.

GONYEA: So, even though there's no certainty at all that there will be a deal, some in Israel and in Washington have already attacked it. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said yesterday, quote, "The Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, and they should be because they got everything and paid nothing. What's been the response to that, among others, at the meeting?

KENYON: Well, they're trying to keep working ahead and ignore the shouting from the sidelines at the moment. But, of course, Kerry did brief Prime Minister Netanyahu before coming here. And when he calls it a bad deal, Netanyahu is very well aware that Kerry's always said no deal is better than a bad deal. And their own things on Capitol Hill could be ominous as well, given the fact that punishing Tehran is one of the very few things Congress seems to be able to agree on. So, the risk of more sanctions is ever-present. I mean, consider the position of Senator Robert Menendez who's basically telling Iran you suspend all enrichment, even the low-enriched uranium for nuclear power, and in return we'll do absolutely nothing about the sanctions against your economy. All we'll do is not put even more sanctions on top. Now, that's the kind of offer analysts say could not only cause Iran to give up on the talks but could jeopardize the unity of the P5+1, maybe even cause the European and other international sanctions to unravel.

GONYEA: All right. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Geneva. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Don.

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