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Negotiators in Vienna will try to revive the Iran nuclear agreement


Negotiators are returning to Vienna this week for what could be a critical phase in talks on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran. Iran has been ramping up its nuclear program since the Trump administration abandoned the agreement and reimposed sanctions. That enrichment of uranium is of big concern to the U.S. and also to countries in Europe and in the Mideast.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul to discuss these developments. Peter, going into these talks, where do things stand right now?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, earlier in the year, there had been this urgent desire to try and get this all wrapped up before the pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani left office. That obviously didn't happen, and now there's hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi in charge. He's generally quite skeptical about negotiating international deals, especially involving the U.S. So far, though, he's been willing to continue these talks - not direct talks with the U.S., mind you. The Americans are still not at the table, which makes the negotiating more cumbersome. But that's one of the prices Iran has extracted for the U.S. pulling out of the deal.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that he wants the U.S. back in the deal. So what's holding things up?

KENYON: Well, for one thing, negotiators spent considerable time just confirming that Iran still agrees to all the things they negotiated before. The talks are effectively back where they were, say, early summer. But Washington still believes it's worth pursuing a diplomatic agreement that would constrain Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Nothing, however, we've seen so far really deals with the main criticisms of the original deal - that it didn't last long enough and that it could allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state sometime in the future.

MARTÍNEZ: And how is the Biden administration reacting to this slow going? I mean, is there a greater sense of urgency possibly?

KENYON: Yes, I would say so. The pause in the talks this year, you know, lasted some five months, almost half the year. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminded people just days ago that time is getting very, very short to salvage the agreement. And the Biden administration, of course, has made clear it would turn to other options, up to and including military options, if diplomacy doesn't get the job done.

Meanwhile, things have been going on on the ground in Iran. U.N. inspectors have been aggressively searched. They've been denied access to some sites. And all this is going on while Iran, which has maintained that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, began enriching nuclear fuel to 60% purity. That's quite close to weapons-grade fuel. So Iran's so-called breakout time - that means how long it would need to have enough fuel for a single nuclear weapon - that time has dropped from a year to a matter of weeks. And that certainly contributes to a sense of urgency, and negotiators on the international side will be keen to get that breakout time back up to a longer period, if they can.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this nuclear deal aside, there are other pressing issues with Iran that could be coming up in 2022. What's on the radar?

KENYON: Well, there are a number of things. President Biden has said he wants to talk about Iran's ballistic missile program, for instance. He also wants to talk about Tehran's support for proxies in the region - Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi rebels in Yemen and others - fueling conflicts in Yemen and elsewhere. Beyond that, getting prisoners released and returned home is a longstanding concern between the two countries. So far, Iran has not been receptive. It's been quite hostile to any negotiations involving its conventional weapons, such as its missiles. Whether it's open to new talks with the U.S. on other topics remains to be seen. At the moment, Tehran is primarily willing to talk about one thing, and that's sanctions and when they might be lifted.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thank you very much.

KENYON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "DIVIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.