Deadline Looms In Nuclear Talks With Iran

After a decade of on again off again talks between the West and Iran over its nuclear program, a last round begins Wednesday in Vienna. Negotiators have set July 20 as the deadline to reach a deal.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. It's being billed as the final push. After a decade of on-again, off-again talks with Iran over its nuclear program, a last round of talks begins today in Vienna. Negotiators from Iran, the U.S. and five major powers have set July 20 - just weeks from now - as the deadline to reach an agreement. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Vienna. Good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, this deadline to reach a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program to peaceful purposes, Peter, is it for real - that deadline?

KENYON: Well, it's not immovable. They could extend it for up to six months. But both sides have pretty compelling reasons not to. In Iran, there's been this wave of optimism that has now hardened into very high expectations that there will be a deal. Economic sanctions will be lifted. If that does not happen, there's going to be fallout. And Iranian officials are already trying to convince the public that they're pulling out all the stops, and if there isn't a deal this month, it won't be their fault.

On the international side, there are couple of big retirements coming up. Deputy U.S. Secretary of State William Burns will be leaving in October, and the head international negotiator, Catherine Ashton, will be finishing her term, as well. These are people who have important working relations with the Iranians. And then you also have American elections coming up - always a hard time to support any concessions to Iran. So not getting a deal might not kill these talks, but it would certainly be a setback.

MONTAGNE: Now, besides Iran and the U.S., we're talking here about Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. What about the hard-liners in some of these countries who think any nuclear agreement would be a disaster? Are they - are they stepping up their opposition, as well?

KENYON: Yes, they are. Israel's ramped up its media campaign, arguing that any agreement that doesn't completely eliminate Iran's ability to enrich uranium is a bad deal. Opponents in Congress are itching to get back into the fray. That has not gone unnoticed in Iran, by the way, where the Tehran Times is now carrying a piece about a proposal to press Congress to link the lifting of sanctions to non-nuclear issues - things like human rights, state-sponsored terrorism - very important issues, but well beyond the scope of these talks.

That plays very neatly into the arguments of Iran's hardliners, including the supreme leader. They say, America will never be satisfied with a peaceful nuclear program. It wants regime change, so why make any concessions?

MONTAGNE: And, Peter, often it's said that big, high-stakes negotiations save the toughest issues for the last. Is that where these talks are at?

KENYON: Yes. The crucial issue, I think, is will Iran keep enriching uranium, and how much? You can enrich uranium to one level for nuclear energy. To a much higher level, it becomes fuel for a nuclear weapon. Since Iran only has one power reactor, and Russia supplies the fuel for it, the U.S. doesn't see much of a need for a big enrichment program - say, a few thousand token centrifuges.

Iran, however, sees it as an issue of nuclear self-reliance. They don't want to depend on outsiders for fuel, and they want perhaps 50 to 100,000 centrifuges spinning. So these are pretty starkly different visions of an Iranian nuclear program. And finding some kind of compromise that both sides can not only live with, but sell to their domestic audience - that's a huge task.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, these talks are going on in the shadow of other crises in Iraq, in Ukraine. Are they intruding on these negotiations?

KENYON: So far, not, but if they're going to have an impact, now could be the time - the crunch time. The Ukraine crisis is about Russia, of course - whether Moscow might cut a side deal with Iran. So far, they haven't, but they have threatened to in the past. In Iraq, some think this might even be an incentive to reach a nuclear deal. The argument is if these talks work, maybe there can be cooperation on other issues, like Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And what if these talks fail?

KENYON: Well, the hardliners would be pleased. But for others, these past six months, with Iran limiting much of its nuclear program, has been much preferable to the decade of pressure and threats of military strikes that preceded them. Failure here would wound President Hassan Rouhani. And if the U.S. is blamed, it could be much harder to maintain the international sanctions. So when officials say the stakes are high, that's what they mean - gloomy prospects all around if they fail.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Vienna, where nuclear talks resume today between Iran, the U.S. and five other major powers.

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