Odds Of Nuclear Deal With Iran May Be Rising

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All the talks about Iran's nuclear program may be coming to head around a few key issues — like how many years Iran might have to be subjected to inspections and how sanctions are lifted in return.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

For months we've heard about the slow going in the talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Well, now is the time to start paying attention if you haven't. As we're about to hear, there has been important progress.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The negotiations are aimed at ensuring that Iran doesn't build a nuclear bomb. In return, sanctions on the country would be lifted. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to criticize this process in his speech to Congress Tuesday - just ahead, some reaction to that.

MCEVERS: But first, here's NPR's Peter Kenyon on where things stand before the nuclear talks resume next week.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For years, experts have warned that the very toughest part of any nuclear deal would be the question of enrichment. How much of its own nuclear fuel should Iran be able to produce while the world still has suspicions about its intentions regarding nuclear weapons? Now analysts who have long tracked the negotiations say it looks like Iran has made an important move on uranium enrichment. Ali Vaez, Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, says if confirmed, the odds of reaching an agreement just shut up.

ALI VAEZ: It appears that one of the most intractable problems which was the issue of enrichment has been more or less resolved. And that, in itself, can create a momentum to overcome the remaining differences.

KENYON: Iran had sought to keep all the roughly 10,000 centrifuges currently producing low enriched uranium while Washington's position has been described as limiting Tehran to between two and 4,000. The experts contacted by NPR say there's more to enrichment than just the number of centrifuges, but they believe Iran is now willing to accept a low enough enrichment and stockpile capacity to put an agreement on that issue within reach. That could be a major development. Mark Fitzpatrick heads the nonproliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He's always assumed enrichment would be the very last issue resolved.

MARK FITZPATRICK: Because it's been my belief that Iran has been very keen to keep open a path to nuclear weapons. I was surprised because I thought this was going to be the sticking point to the end. Now there are some other sticking points about sanctions relief and some other things.

KENYON: Tough issues remaining include how quickly sanctions might be lifted and how long any agreement would last. Critics who say Iran can't be trusted have seized on this issue of duration. They argue that if a deal imposes restrictions on Iran for 10 years and then eases them, that amounts to a giveaway to Iranian nuclear hawks. Fitzpatrick says on the one hand, critics do have a legitimate argument, up to a point.

FITZPATRICK: That if the government of Iran does not significantly change its strategic objectives of having a nuclear weapons capability, then all we're doing is kicking the can down the road, and 15 years from now they could have that capability very quickly.

KENYON: But on the other hand, he adds, who knows if those leading Iran 15 years from now will be eager for nuclear weapons capability anyway. And analyst Ali Vaez says any agreement should be judged not against the maximalist positions of those whose goal is to dismantle the Iranian program, but against the dangers of what would occur should the talks collapse.

VAEZ: Those who argue for dismantling Iran's nuclear program forget that exactly 10 years ago this path was pursued, and it failed. And it only resulted in 20,000 more centrifuges and almost eight tons of low enriched uranium in Iran. That goal was unattainable then, and it's unattainable now.

KENYON: Iran says it doesn't want nuclear weapons, but it does anxiously want a growing economy. The signals from the talks suggest it's willing to make unprecedented concessions to get sanctions lifted. But will that be enough to craft a deal that can withstand opposition from critics in Tehran, Washington and Israel? Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.