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March Deadline Approaches For Iran Nuclear Talks Deal

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's talk more now about what that nuclear deal with Iran could look like. Negotiators from Europe, Russia, China, the United States and Iran will be in Lausanne, Switzerland, later this week. And they have said that the end of March is a make-or-break deadline to get something done. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been covering every twist and turn in these negotiations. He's at his base in Istanbul, ready to head to Switzerland for the next round of talks. Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So let's say that negotiators actually get something done by the end of March. I mean, we're hearing different descriptions of what exactly might be announced. Some are calling it a framework. I mean, you've also heard this term, a political understanding. What are we talking about here?

KENYON: Well, basically, it's an important milestone, or it will be if these talks go well. This would basically be Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China all saying we can see a formula here that we can all live with that will assure Iran's nuclear program will be peaceful. There won't be a weapons program. And now we need three months to write it all down, and that means the technical definitions and the parameters. But even at this stage of agreeing in principle, it's very difficult. They've got to layout enough of an agreement to maintain public support for the talks. But if they go into too much detail, then they might jeopardize what's upcoming 'cause some of these issues are going to still be hashed out during the drafting process. And they don't even know what to call it. Iran prefers political understanding. They don't want to talk about an agreement right now. So there's a lot of things to juggle.

GREENE: But you're saying, I mean, even though this is, as you put it, just everyone agreeing to a certain formula, I mean, that's significant? It's more than just a political message from these negotiators?

KENYON: Well, the politics of this are important. It would be a signal that many of these tough political decisions, the painful compromises, have been made, and that could translate into momentum to finish this deal by July. But if they just come out with a brief statement saying, look, we've made a lot of progress, we can't tell you much about it, that would not provide much momentum.

GREENE: So you're going to have to be sort of reading the tea leaves here when they come out with this statement. I mean, you'll get a sense for how committed both sides are here.

KENYON: That's right. If it's just a few lines in saying we'll meet again, that doesn't bode well necessarily. If they come out with something more fulsome and take that back to their capitals and sell it there, then they could be on a path towards a final deal.

GREENE: Well, let's move to the next step on that path to a final deal. Let's say we get some sort of framework announced here by the end of this month. What would happen over these three months? I mean, that seems like a long time if it's just sort of putting the technicalities down on paper.

KENYON: Well, this would really get at the heart of everything, what both sides would actually do and not do on the ground. Here's one way to think about it; we've got a deal in place now since the fall of 2013. The nuclear program in Iran's been restricted. U.N. inspectors are on the ground, seeing things they haven't seen before, like uranium mines. There's been no new centrifuges turned on, no new sections imposed. If you think very broadly, a final deal could look like a longer-lasting and more sweeping version of that. And the U.S. says you have to close off all the pathways to a nuclear weapon, and that could be by kicking out inspectors and then using uranium or plutonium to make a weapon - that's called breaking out - or by what they call sneaking out, and that's quietly diverting fuel to a secret weapons program while pretending to comply. So to guard against that, inspectors need to see even more than they're seeing now. They need to have the right to unannounced visits to places Iran hasn't declared to be nuclear facilities. It - basically, it has to be a very strong deal so that if a violation is detected, there'd be enough time to warn the outside world.

GREENE: So that's the definition of a strong deal for countries like the United States and European countries. What is the definition of a good deal for Iran? What might Iran get out of this?

KENYON: Well, this boils down to sanctions relief, and it's a big sticking point. Congress is not about to lift its sanctions. The president could suspend or waive some of them for a period of time, but then there are the U.N. sanctions. Officials say the Security Council's got a lot of power to suspend or lift some of those. And Iran urgently needs something lifted right at the beginning of the deal so it can declare victory back home and keep going and presumably comply with the rest of it. But the danger for Washington and its allies is that once sanctions are lifted, how do you put them back? And so we're told that the big sanctions on oil and banking will not be part of any early deal, and that's a painful pill for Tehran to swallow.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's Peter Kenyon who is about to head to Switzerland to cover the next round of talks in a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Peter, thanks very much.

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