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Kerry Jets To Geneva To Join Iran Nuclear Talks

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Secretary of State John Kerry has joined world diplomats in Geneva today in hopes of reaching an initial agreement to freeze Iran's nuclear program. His arrival suggests a deal may be within reach this weekend, but it's still not there yet. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Geneva and joins us now. Peter, thanks so much for being with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: So, how do we read the tea leaves on this? The talks were supposed to finish yesterday, but now the secretary of state has flown all the way across the Atlantic to join them.

KENYON: Well, it should be a positive sign, although the very latest comments from British Foreign Secretary William Hague are along the lines, well, the gaps are narrow but they're important and not easy to resolve. So, I think your point that we're not there yet is still very much in play. But I think there's also a high-level presence, which means there's a growing sense of urgency about wrapping up these talks. I mean, this is supposed to be the easy part - a six-month deal that's entirely reversible in just about every respect if something doesn't go right. So, hammering out a lasting comprehensive deal is going to be much harder than this. And if this one takes too long to negotiate, there's a fear the whole diplomatic enterprise could just collapse under pressure. We've already heard from both parties in Congress that more sanctions may come up next month if these talks fail. So, I'd say there is a feeling of some kind of a deadline. Maybe not this weekend but soon.

SIMON: Well, what do we know about the issues that seem to be left hanging? The British foreign secretary, Mr. Hague, referred to them as narrow but important.

KENYON: Yes. Well, one appears to be this question of enriching uranium. Iran says it will never give up what it calls its right to enrich, although at the same time it's willing to negotiate limits on just about every aspect - how much, how quickly, where - and then let inspectors check things out to make sure they're complying. The U.S., for its part, says no, it won't explicitly acknowledge Iran or any country's right to enrich. But what we're hearing so far is that they may have a deal to finesse this point. For instance, if Iran stops enriching to the highest level it currently does, which is 20 percent, and keeps going at the three-and-a-half percent level, but converts an equal amount of its existing stockpile to a non-enrichable form - sorry for the technical details - that would amount to a net freeze. Now, the New York Times and others have an account of that. But there's also questions about a reactor at Arak that would work under heavy water and produce plutonium. And Iranian officials, of course, want more sanctions relief if they can get it. So, those should be among the issues they're talking about now.

SIMON: And a temporary deal is - at least we've heard - that it's six months.

KENYON: That's right. The idea is a net freeze on Iran's ability to advance its program for six months.

SIMON: There's been considerable criticism of even this temporary deal in advance - in the U.S. Congress, as you note; in Israel, in Saudi Arabia. How do we understand the ground of those disagreements?

KENYON: Well, on paper a lot of the criticism seems overblown. I mean, it's more an argument about unintended consequences. As the Obama administration describes this package, the relief is just a fraction of what Iran is going to continue to lose over the next six months, if there is a deal. In the oil sector alone, Iran's losing an estimated $5 billion a month. And officials say there's no way they're going to get $25 billion out of what's on the table here. But the latest argument from the opponents is more psychological. If the international business community senses that there is a trend towards lifting sanctions altogether, there could be some kind of a rush to get in early, start doing business again, beat out the competition. So, if you don't trust Iran, and apparently don't trust the business community either, there is an argument to be made that the value of this sanctions relief could turn out to be higher.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Geneva. Thank you so much.

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

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