Talks Yield Possible Framework For Iran Nuclear Deal

Pressure is increasing for a deal over limiting Iran's nuclear program in exchange for reduced economic sanctions. Negotiators have one month until the current temporary agreement will expire.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Negotiators trying to ensure that Iran has only a peaceful nuclear program have less than a month to reach an agreement. A week of talks in Vienna yielded the potential beginnings of a deal. But thorny problems remain unresolved.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, U.S. and Iranian negotiators also spent time fending off questions about the crisis in Iraq.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After five days of talks variously described as long, intensive and tough, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters that there is now a working document pointing toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Although he joked that at this point, it probably contains more brackets and qualifications than clear text.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: We believe that if the other side does the same, we will reach a common position and hopefully resolve this issue by July 20th.

KENYON: A senior U.S. administration official called what's been drafted so far a working document that can help us move forward. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said every available asset of the U.S. government will be deployed to see if an agreement can be reached by July 20th. But a great deal remains to be done.


WENDY SHERMAN: What is still unclear is whether Iran is really ready and willing to take all of the steps necessary to assure the world that its nuclear program is, and will remain, exclusively peaceful.

KENYON: The talks were held in the shadow of a worsening crisis in Iraq. Analyst Ali Vaez with the International Crisis Group says despite speculation that the Iraq issue would complicate these talks, he doesn't think that's likely unless things there get much worse.

ALI VAEZ: I think the nuclear crisis has grown to a level that it basically trumps all other issues, even if the two parties' interests are completely aligned, like is the case with fighting extremism.

KENYON: As expected, negotiators appear to be having the most difficult time agreeing on how much uranium Iran should be allowed to enrich, and how fast. This involves several factors - how many centrifuges Iran has, how efficient they are and how much of a stockpile of enriched uranium it maintains. While negotiators have largely avoided specifics in their public statements, Zarif did suggest that this week's talks about enrichment did not focus on the number of centrifuges, but on Iran's overall capacity. Several analysts have suggested that a flexible overall enrichment cap offers a better path to resolving the enrichment issue than counting centrifuges. But the issue remains one of the most difficult to be dealt with. Former U.N. Nuclear Inspector Olli Heinonen, now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the talks are approaching their most intense stage. Not least because the decisions to be made in the coming weeks, on Iran's enrichment and the lifting of international sanctions, could have important repercussions.

OLLI HEINONEN: I think that this will go to the last minute. This is a hard bargain and both sides want to make maximum out of it because consequences are long-lasting and it is very difficult to put the sanctions back. And it's also very difficult to roll enrichment back if you decide at a later time that the allowance was too high. So I think that, you know, it's going to be quite a discussion on that last evening and perhaps even next morning.

KENYON: The negotiators will be back very soon, on July 2. And talks will continue in various forms every day until July 20th, and perhaps beyond. An extension of up to six month is possible. Although for a variety of reasons, both sides would like to avoid it. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Vienna.

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