Middle East
6:17 am
Thu May 24, 2012

Iran Nuclear Talks Described As Long, Hard

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 6:40 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers resumed this morning in Baghdad. The United States and its allies are pressing Iran to freeze its production of highly enriched uranium, but are refusing to offer the kind of easing of economic sanctions that Iran is seeking as a concession. These talks are described as long and hard, and NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering them in Baghdad, Iraq. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: We know that this has become a marathon session, but do you have a good sense of what's going on in the room?

KENYON: Well, very long talks stretching on towards midnight last night, followed by a briefing in the wee hours of the morning from a senior administration official who basically said, look. It's clear these talks won't be easy. Iran is finally fully engaged on these very difficult issues. And as the two sides laid their proposals on the table, the gulf between them on certain points became ever more clear.

The West wants Iran to freeze its program of enriching uranium to 20 percent, fairly close to weapons grade. However, restricting enrichment on any basis is very sensitive for Iran. Iran, on the other hand, wants sanctions eased, painful economic sanctions, and they've only seen minor offers on that front from the West.

Negotiators have been somewhat circumspect about the details now, so it's possible there are other things on the table that we'll hear about later. What we know so far is that the process is ongoing. They're engaged. And if they can manage to keep this atmosphere going, there may be real progress to report in subsequent meetings.

INSKEEP: OK. So the shape of some kind of a deal here would be freezing enrichment at some level in exchange for a loosening of sanctions, but that's turning out to be difficult for both sides to do, both sides to obtain. Now, do the Iranians expect to have a little more leverage here, a little more leeway, because they are reported to be on the verge of agreeing to let UN nuclear inspectors have more access to the country?

KENYON: I'd say that did appear to be the case. That was their hope. The international side, on the other hand, was quick to distinguish these talks from the nuclear inspector's work. Western officials also say, you know, this agreement, if it comes between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, won't be real until it's signed. And so there's still a possibility that this was some kind of a maneuver by which Tehran would hope to see what it could get out of these talks.

The IAEA, though, I should say, does seem confident that an agreement will be reached soon. And I think we need to point out that these inspections are about alleged experiments that happened years ago. There's no clear and convincing evidence that Tehran is right now actively seeking a weapon. What experts are worried about is that Iran wants the knowledge and the capability to do so should it choose to build one.

INSKEEP: Does the mere length of these talks - they've gone a little longer than expected - give some sense of momentum that people might be making progress?

KENYON: Yes. That's the impression we're getting, with the caveat that what they're actually talking about is very difficult and the differences remain very large. Especially from the international side, we're hearing that the next meeting - or set of meetings - may prove quite important because, as you know, tough EU oil sanctions are due to kick in July 1st. Anything held in June on this subject will be under that added layer of pressure.

Analysts say if somehow they do make enough progress, Iran makes concessions that the EU is moved to delay those sanctions, that could boost confidence and really keep this process rolling. If, on the other hand, those sanctions kick in as planned, Iran's motivation to engage may simply vanish. Now, the senior administration official says there are other sanctions, other ways of applying pressure. But we're coming up to a fairly significant point here on July 1st.

INSKEEP: Of course, maybe the talks have been extended just because if the negotiators stop talking, they'd have to walk out into a sandstorm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KENYON: That's a good question. We did manage to fly in, but the sand and the dust has kicked fiercely this morning. These sleep-deprived delegations may find themselves stuck in Baghdad a bit longer than they planned.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon, in Baghdad. Peter, thanks as always.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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