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Talks Begin In Geneva On Iran's Nuclear Program


Talks on Iran's nuclear program are underway this morning in Geneva. Negotiators from the United States and five other world powers expect to hear Iran outline how it can guarantee that its program is for peaceful purposes and not nuclear weapons. In exchange, the Iranians hope for relief from economic sanctions, which have devastated many parts of that country's economy.

The election this summer of a more pragmatic president in Tehran has raised hopes for a breakthrough. But there's a lot of detail to go through.

And NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Geneva covering the talks. Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: So, there was a lot of optimism going into these talks. What about, as the parties have arrived in Geneva?

KENYON: Well, I can report there's a lot more media interest than we've seen in years. The intensity is definitely up. The mood, I'd say it's more business-like now. This isn't rhetoric anymore. This is where negotiators find out if all the positive signals from Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is backed up by real concessions and even a workable path to reach some kind of a deal.

The first step is up to Mr. Zarif. Today, he put the new Iranian proposal on the table.

INSKEEP: OK. So it's the Iranian's move in this chess game, if we want to call it that. Is it known in the arms control community, generally, what Iran may address?

KENYON: Yes. I'd say it's pretty clear. A big question is how far is Iran willing to go and this question of enriched uranium, how much will they reduce it? They've got a couple of stockpiles, five percent enriched for energy, 20 percent is used for medical research. They may - they've said they may be willing to reduce that 20 percent stockpile and that's the big concern for arms control experts.

INSKEEP: I guess we ought to mention the higher that percentage, the closer you are to something that could be used as a weapon. That's why the lower number is what the West would prefer, right?

KENYON: Exactly right. The less 20 percent that Iran has, the longer it would take if it wanted to build a weapon, so that has the effect of buying time for more talks, also could build a bit of badly needed confidence. I mean, these diplomatic talks have gone nowhere for years.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you mentioned confidence, Peter, because there's so little trust here and you have a situation where Iran needs to reassure the world about his nuclear program and also get relief from sanctions. How to do that in an atmosphere of no trust?

KENYON: Well, that's the crux of it. What does the international side mean when it keeps talking about concrete verifiable steps? They could, for example, involve capping the number of centrifuges Iran can use. It could involve suspending or closing this underground facility at Fordo where all the 20 percent uranium is enriched. All of that would necessarily involve more visits from the U.N.

We should say those inspectors do visit now, almost every other week, but they'll need more and wider access. That could be a problem. On sanctions, a senior administration official says they're ready to move if the Iranian offer justifies it, but probably not on the big ones - oil and banking - and that's a problem for Iran because this new leadership was elected to produce a better economy and they need some results to show.

And that has some analysts wondering if Iran may try to force its way through to some friendlier faces on the other side of the table, maybe Russia or China, try and get faster sanctions movement, so we're also watching the solidarity of the international side.

INSKEEP: Well, there are also parties, of course, that are not at the table, but are important here and we'll be watching very closely. Israel comes to mind. Saudi Arabia comes to mind. The United States Congress comes to mind. Congress may have to help if any sanctions are to be changed or lifted. What is the case that they're making right now?

KENYON: Well, or Congress could, on the contrary, add even more sanctions to the pile. It all boils down to the lack of trust you mentioned earlier, and that's also true in Tehran, very little trust of Washington. Western hardliners are absolutely certain that sanctions are the main reason Iran is even at the table, so easing up makes no sense to them.

They say that would end Tehran's incentive to bargain. I should mention, though, that the skeptics prevailed about a decade ago when Iran had relatively few centrifuges. There was a very strong offer of more openness and transparency. It died on the vine. The negotiator who made that, by the way, was Hassan Rouhani, who is now president.

He was banished to wilderness for years and Iran, in the meantime, built more than 18,000 centrifuges. So we know what happens when the West holds out for a perfect solution. The question is whether a better result can be achieved through compromise.

INSKEEP: OK. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyan at the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.