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Talks On Iran's Nuclear Program Likely To Be Extended

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Let's read between the lines of a statement on nuclear talks with Iran. President Obama says, talks have shown, quote, "real progress." That's a diplomatic way of saying there's no deal yet. But the president also says, there's a credible way forward - and indication diplomats will keep talking past a Sunday deadline. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on the possibilities and the risks.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Nothing about these nuclear talks is simple - not even the seemingly straightforward proposition of extending them. Remember after the interim nuclear accord that expires on Sunday was agreed to late last year, it still took months to hammer out its precise terms. Now officials say, negotiators are trying to work out new terms to keep the talks going past Sunday. One major question is how long should an extension last? The interim agreement allows for up to an additional six months but both sides say they don't want talks to drag on that long. Iran analyst Alireza Nader at the Rand Corporation says there's good reason for that - because the longer the extension the greater the risk for backers of nuclear diplomacy in both Washington and Iran.

ALIREZA NADER: The U.S. Congress can claim that the negotiations are not going anywhere and that more sanctions are needed at this point and also the Rouhani government could come under renewed criticism that negotiations so far have not produced many economic benefits.

KENYON: Many members of Congress have been itching to oppose new Iran sanctions. The House of Representatives has already voted to do so and now Senate supporters are lining up to make the case for sending them on to the White House. Iran has repeatedly said any new sanctions will cause it to resume enriching uranium to higher levels of purity, which would likely derail the negotiations. And for critics of these talks, an extension now will only put off the inevitable moment when Iran and six world powers finally conclude that their visions of an Iranian nuclear program are simply incompatible. In Tehran, Iran's supreme leader is still protecting the negotiating team from hard-line critics. But he has also grown increasingly defiant about also protecting Iran's nuclear rights, issuing demands that could make it very hard to reach a viable compromise. Iran analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group says, despite the pitfalls ahead both sides see continuing these talks as preferable to the alternative.

ALI VAEZ: I think it doesn't require a strong sense of imagination to foresee what's going to replace this process if it fails. I think we're going to back to status quo ante - we're going to go back to the vicious race of sanctions against centrifuges.

KENYON: It's not a hard argument to grasp with crises unfolding around the Middle East, on the edge of Europe and elsewhere, the last thing policymakers need is another flashpoint heating up now. Vaez says, it looks like the talks will continue past Sunday and pressure will only increase to find a compromise and the sooner the better.

VAEZ: But if there is no progress failure down the road will become inevitable because this process is not sustainable. The price of an agreement in the future will significantly increase as a result of failure now and this unique opportunity which is a rare alignment of political characters and calendars will no longer be there.

KENYON: Adding to the uncertainty are new sanctions just announced by Washington on Russia - one of its allies in the nuclear negotiations. Moscow has previously threatened to change its position on the Iran talks and further tensions now could revive this threat to the unity of the six nation group sitting across the table from Iran. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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