High-Stakes Talks In Geneva With Iran, Top Powers

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Representatives of six world powers sit down in Geneva with diplomats from Iran for rare face-to-face talks on Iran's nuclear program on Thursday. Iran says it won't discuss what it calls its nuclear "rights" and insists its program is only for peaceful energy production.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

American diplomats are looking across the table today to their Iranian counterparts in rare face-to-face talks about Iran's nuclear aspirations. The U.S. is joined by five other world powers in Geneva and hopes the discussions will lead to a freeze of Iran's nuclear program. In the short term, the U.S. and other countries want international inspectors to visit a uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom.

Iran just disclosed the existence of that plant last week, but it says it won't discuss what Iran calls its nuclear rights and insists its program is only for peaceful energy production.

Joining us from Geneva is NPR's Eric Westervelt. Good morning.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We have a one-day meeting in which the Iranians want to talk generalities while everyone else at the table wants to talk specifics. And so what are the U.S. expectations for today's talks?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think it's safe to say they're relatively low expectations. And there's certainly a risk the sides will be talking past each other, Renee. I mean, Iran wants - has made it clear it wants these meetings to be about broader strategic and security and proliferation issues, not its nuclear program.

But for all the powers around the table today, with the possible exception of China, this meeting is all about the nuclear program of Iran. And a senior US official here with the delegation says they want international inspectors with the IAEA, the Atomic Energy Agency, to be able to inspect the Qom site - in his words, within weeks, not months. He emphasized that, you know, this can't just turn into more talks for the sake of talks, that the U.S. wants to see actions, not just words.

MONTAGNE: Is there any signal that Americans and Iranians might hold one-on-one talks during today's meeting?

WESTERVELT: Well, a senior American official here said that's certainly possible, Renee. There's a morning session, then an afternoon session at a villa near Lake Geneva. There are breaks both for lunch, and during the talks there are breaks as well. And he said there will be certainly a chance for sidebar discussions one on one, but he said it's just not clear if that will happen, but the U.S. certainly seems open to it.

And there's a sense that if the tone is positive, Renee, if the atmospherics are right, that the meeting could start to lay the groundwork for more in-depth talks in the near future.

MONTAGNE: And of those around the table, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany are relatively united in saying another round of U.N. sanctions might be in order if the Iranians aren't convinced to stop enriching uranium. China and Russia, not so much on board.

WESTERVELT: I think that's true. Russia has had some relatively strong words recently about Iran's defiance, but Moscow has been pretty careful not to emphasize sanctions ahead of today's talks. And China has been vocally opposed to a new round of U.N. sanctions, and I think tellingly, sent a relatively low-level delegation to today's meetings. But as one analyst here put it to me, sanctions may be all the West really has at this point, even if the sanctions prove less than effective, take a lot of time to work, and in the end are more symbolic than substantive.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt, in Geneva. Thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Renee.

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