Talks May Decide Iran's Seriousness On Nuclear Issue

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In Vienna, three Western powers are holding talks with Iran aimed at convincing it to send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad for processing. That would keep Iran from processing it into bomb-making material. The International Atomic Energy Agency is hosting the talks with representatives of Iran, the United States, Russia and France.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. In this part of the program, we'll hear about two different tactics used to take on Iran. The U.S. is readying to mount an economic offensive against Iran's Revolutionary Guard. And we'll have that story in a few moments. First, to Vienna, where Western powers are holding talks with Iran aimed at convincing it to send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad for processing. That would keep Iran from processing it into bomb-making material.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is hosting the talks with representatives of Iran, the United States, Russia and France. It's a key test of whether Iran is serious about negotiating over its nuclear program. NPR's Eric Westervelt is there and joins us. Hello.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Eric, negotiators are trying to nail down technical and other details of a deal that Western officials say Iran agreed to in principle at a meeting in Geneva earlier this month. So what would that deal look like?

WESTERVELT: Well, the idea, Renee, is to send about 75 percent of Iran's declared stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country for processing in Russia and then likely France. And that uranium would be returned to Iran as fuel for use in a medical research reactor in Tehran.

Now, this research reactor has been under monitoring and inspections by the IAEA for years. But still, which country would do what, when? And if Iran is really committed to working out the details of this deal - all that has to be worked out. And you know, while some of the participants are painting the talks as about technical issues, there's clearly a lot more at stake.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, it pretty much would be a breakthrough if Iran agreed to this. And one of the things it's aimed at doing - and let me ask you if it will - is alleviating fears that Iran might enrich that uranium if it were inside the country and use it as fuel to make a nuclear bomb.

WESTERVELT: Exactly. It alleviates that concern in the short term anyway. I mean, if most of low-enriched uranium is out of the country being processed, it takes away that breakout scenario, because experts believe it would take Iran a year or longer to replenish that uranium stockpile.

But since the Geneva meeting on October 1st, Renee, Iran has sent really a series of conflicting messages suggesting, you know, they may not be ready to cut this deal. There were very strong words, especially on Iranian state-run television, suggesting Iran would back away from this agreement unless the West provides it with new fuel. Perhaps all that was just, you know, a negotiating tactic. It's just not clear.

But Western diplomats and White House officials certainly see these talks as an important test. You know, is Iran serious about negotiating or are they just trying to drag out talks and do more talking for talking's sake?

MONTAGNE: And Eric, if there is no deal, it would certainly affect larger talks, right, between world powers and Iran?

WESTERVELT: Exactly. At the Geneva meeting, Iran agreed to meet again with the six major powers by the end of this month. If this deal in Vienna falls apart, those talks on a wider range of nuclear issues could be in jeopardy. But if there is a deal it would also set a positive tone for those further talks.

And Iran is scheduled to let IAEA inspectors in this Sunday to start to examine a recently revealed suspected uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom. So clearly there's more at stake today in this conference room in Vienna than just these details about Iran's medical nuclear reactor.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt speaking to us from Vienna.

Thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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