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Talks persist in Vienna and elsewhere at reviving the Iran nuclear deal

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There's a flurry of meetings around the effort to revive the international agreement that had put limits on Iran's nuclear program. The deal has largely fallen apart since the Trump administration abandoned it in 2018. The U.S. reimposed economic sanctions, and Iran has ramped up its production of uranium toward what would be needed if it wanted to build a bomb. Talks are ongoing in Vienna and elsewhere about bringing both the U.S. and Iran back into compliance.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul to discuss the latest. Peter, we mentioned that former President Trump took the U.S. out of this deal. He said the Obama administration hadn't made it tough enough. And that seems to be an issue still for the Iranians. Can you update us on that?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the Trump withdrawal from the original agreement is a massive issue for the Iranians. And they are now demanding binding guarantees that it won't happen again. And now, from Tehran's point of view, that's simple, common sense. Why would Iran agree to restrict its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief if that relief could be overturned at any time? The Americans say, practically speaking, such a guarantee isn't really possible.

The deal is not a formal treaty, which would be harder to get out of. But then, if it was a treaty, it would have needed a two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate, which analysts say would have been pretty much impossible. There is another factor at play now, and that's money. When the original deal took effect, billions of dollars flowed into Iran to the consternation of critics in the West. And it's possible another influx of cash could be highly attractive to Tehran and might help them get back into compliance with the deal, even without guarantees.

MARTINEZ: They've had several rounds of talks. Where do the other issues stand as talks resume this week?

KENYON: Well, reports out of Vienna suggest some progress has been made on what both sides would need to do to restore the agreement. But there are key important decisions remaining to be made on an exact sequence of events - who does what, when - and the crucial item of lifting sanctions, how quickly, how that happens, et cetera. And remember, the U.S. isn't directly involved here. As a non-party to the agreement, the U.S. isn't at the table. Since 2018, when then-President Trump pulled out of the deal, it's been the four other members of the U.N. Security Council - the U.K., France, Russia and China - plus Germany negotiating directly with Iran.

MARTINEZ: There are other meetings possibly coming up in Russia and Saudi Arabia. What's known about those so far?

KENYON: Well, Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, is to visit Russia next week. And Moscow is interested in salvaging the nuclear agreement. What exactly they'll talk about, how it will go about achieving that goal isn't yet clear. As for Saudi Arabia, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman says a serious approach is needed to ensure restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and its missile program. Now, Iran's ballistic missiles are not covered in the 2015 nuclear agreement. That's something President Joe Biden says he wants to talk about with Iran once that deal is restored and put back in force. But so far, Iran has resisted, saying its conventional weapons are really not on the table for discussion now or later.

MARTINEZ: Is there any time crunch on this? Or can they just keep talking for weeks and months?

KENYON: There's some pressure. It's coming from the U.S. Washington wants results soon. There's a concern that if Iran's nuclear program advances too far, this agreement won't be able to work, won't achieve the results they want. Tehran says it will not be held to, quote, "fabricated deadlines." And remember, this is all about restoring the original deal, which was criticized for not being tough enough on Iran and not lasting long enough. Addressing those concerns would mean a new round of talks and with hard-liners in charge from Supreme Leader Khamenei to President Raisi, to the legislature and the courts. They're all in the hard-line camp. And it doesn't seem likely that they would want to rush into a new set of talks.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.