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Negotiations aimed at limiting Iran's nuclear program resume in New York this week. They're taking place on the sidelines of a gathering of world leaders in town for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. But any lift the presence of those leaders might have brought has been undermined by a world facing multiple crises, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The last round of nuclear talks, aimed at trading sanctions relief for limits on Iran's nuclear program, broke in Vienna with only an agreement to keep trying for a few more months. Now, as a crisis-heavy summer turns into fall, the long effort to make it much harder for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon is struggling for global attention. The Ukraine conflict, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the extremist violence in Iraq and Syria are all overshadowing the Iran issue. Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at Saint Andrews University in Scotland, says the Iraq conflict in particular may embolden Iran, which tends to look at each new crisis as potential leverage in another.
ALI ANSARI: You know, rather than find a way of coming to terms with the nuclear issues so that there can be greater collaboration in what I would consider to be a far more urgent matter of national security, you may find that the Iranians will say, ah, well, now that we're in demand by the United States and others in Iraq, we can increase our leverage elsewhere. And this, of course, just adds another complication to the whole situation.
KENYON: Increasing demands in the nuclear talks now could be fatal. Iran analyst Ali Vaez with the International Crisis Group says, with a November 24 deadline approaching and unlikely to be extended again, this round of talks in New York with high-level officials hovering in the background is likely to be pivotal.
ALI VAEZ: This is the make-it-or-break-it moment for the negotiations. Both sides need to walk back from the maximalist positions that they put on the table so far. They need to come up with new, innovative ways of going around the existing obstacles.
KENYON: As always with the Iran talks, however, that's easier said than done. And the arrival of the negotiations to U.S. soil has also spurred hard-line critics of a nuclear deal into action. Israel dispatched Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz to Washington with a warning not to lose focus on Iran because of the atrocities committed by the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He repeated his for message for Israeli television when he got home.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YUVAL STEINITZ: (Speaking Hebrew).
KENYON: Even though the war on ISIS is justified, said Steinitz, it cannot come at the expense of the main mission of preventing a nuclear Iran. Steinitz described ISIS as a five-year problem, while he said a nuclear Iran would be a 50-year problem.
The primary sticking point concerns the size and scope of Iran's ability to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. This is where the most painful compromises must be made if there is to be any deal. And analyst Ali Ansari says on the Iranian side that has only grown more difficult after Tehran ratcheted up its demand for its nuclear rights late in the negotiations, leading to what one former U.S. official called rights creep, as Ansari explained.
ANSARI: So that basically their initial desire was effectively to have the right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil, which I have to say would be a major accomplishment for the Islamic Republic. I mean, we must remember, in the 1970s, the Shah, who clearly had much better relations with the West, was never able really to get that sort of agreement from the West. But now what they've done is they've said, well, actually we want an industrial-scale enrichment program. It was a huge, huge mistake, and I think this is where we're facing an obstacle.
KENYON: For its part, Iran has been equally disappointed with a lack of movement from the international side on its top priority - the easing and lifting of economic sanctions that have badly hurt the Iranian economy. Analysts say the coming days may spell a difference between progress that keeps a potential deal in sight and a breakdown that could restart the drumbeat for new sanctions or even a military strike, just as the Middle East appears to be boiling over. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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