Iran Nuclear Talks Bog Down As Tuesday Deadline Approaches

Iran Nuclear Talks Bog Down As Tuesday Deadline Approaches

9:49am Mar 31, 2015

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We're also tracking a struggle at the Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland. Tomorrow is the self-imposed deadline to reach an understanding on the elements of a deal. A senior Iranian negotiator is quoted as rejecting a key part of that emerging deal with the United States and its allies and other nations. We're going to talk this through with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is in Lausanne, Switzerland. Welcome to the program, Peter.


INSKEEP: So what's it like to be at these negotiations day after day?

KENYON: It's a bit of a grind. I mean, these surroundings are quite luxurious - the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel on the Lake Geneva. But it just feels like the end of a long negotiation - a lot of diplomats, you know, moving quickly up and down carpeted hallways and a lot of changing predictions. One hour, everything's great, and the next, it's all falling apart. It feels like the end of a big struggle, and of course it's not. If they can get this understanding, they'll still have three months of hammering out the details.

INSKEEP: I've been surprised to see photographs of Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats. They're out in gardens, they're in restaurants and they seem to be talking intensively wherever they are.

KENYON: It's a long grind for them as well, and their rooms have no windows that are open anyway, and they do like to get out when they can.

INSKEEP: So there is a last-minute - last day anyway - dispute here, a protest by Iran over one of the terms. What is the term, and why does it matter?

KENYON: Well, it's a piece of the puzzle and a big issue, enrichment, Iran's ability to produce its own fuel. Now, we had been told that Iran was signaling it might ease international concerns about its stockpile by sending it out of the country maybe to Russia. And this is low-enriched uranium, the stuff that fuels reactors, but could, if enriched further, be part of a weapons program. And late yesterday, negotiator Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying, shipping it out, no, it's not on the agenda. Out of the question was another translation. You know, there's some history to this. Back in 2009, there was an apparent deal that involved shipping the stuff out of the country. The supreme leader shot it down. So now we're wondering if it's a last-minute hitch in this diplomacy.

INSKEEP: The supreme leader of course is Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has allowed these negotiations to go forward but has been skeptical. What does this last-minute objection mean for the United States and its allies?

KENYON: A senior State Department official this morning says the issue of Iran's nuclear stockpile hasn't been decided yet. Shipping it out has been discussed, but there's other ways of dealing with it as well. And remember, we've got a deal now. Iran has been diluting some of its stockpile - converting some, oxidizing - all of which makes it harder to further enrich it to weapons grade.

Now, analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group says you've got to focus on the overall goal, reducing the stockpile from more than 17,000 pounds to a few hundred. He says that's still on the table, so this shipping-out question wouldn't be a deal breaker necessarily. And it's coming at a crucial point in the negotiations amid a list of Iranian demands. Diplomats always say they won't negotiate in public, but these issues do seem to keep popping up.

INSKEEP: Yet with all this public discussion and so many countries involved, does this in the end get down to a couple of people in a room and whether they can see eye-to-eye?

KENYON: There are some talks that involve just a couple of people, and those are mainly the technical ones. But when it comes to the big political decisions, you have a lot of men and women in the room, including all the foreign ministers from all the countries involved, and they usually show up when it seems like a deal is imminent. So that's why everyone's paying a lot of attention right now, and hopefully we'll find out in the next day or so.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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