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Iran Nuclear Talks Have A Different Tone This Time Around

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Iranian leaders are conducting something of a charm offensive in New York as they begin a critical round of nuclear talks with six world powers. The goal of the talks is an agreement that would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In exchange, punishing economic sanctions against Iran would be lifted. Negotiators met today, and discussions will continue alongside next week's annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In a series of interviews and public appearances this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif doled out a few hints as to what Iran might consider an acceptable nuclear agreement. These usually come wrapped in a disarming plea for reasonableness on both sides. He told the Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, that the limits on Iran's nuclear program - now under negotiation - shouldn't be seen as an end in themselves but as a means of rebuilding confidence between two longtime.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: And there is mutual lack of confidence on both sides. I mean, the Iranian people and the Iranian government representing them is totally distrustful of the intentions of the United States, to be absolutely honest with you. And I won't be surprised if you tell me that you don't trust our intentions. So, fine. (Laughter) We're even.

KENYON: The answer, says Zarif, echoing comments by international negotiators on this topic, is to build a mechanism that ensures Iran has only a peaceful nuclear program. Then he digs in with what sounds like a rejection of Western desires to keep Iran under unprecedented nuclear restrictions backed by highly-intrusive inspections for over a decade or more.

ZARIF: Let's establish a mechanism for a number of years - not 10, not 15. But I'm willing to live with less so that we can limit the program so when we get there, everybody knows that this program is entirely peaceful.

KENYON: When we get there refers to the day when Iran has proved to the world that it's enriching uranium not for weapons fuel but solely for civilian purposes. Zarif says that day should come not in 10 years or 15, but in 5. Zarif's appearances underscored two things. First, the vastly improved atmosphere for these talks led by a team of English-speaking, experienced Iranian diplomats - a welcomed seat change from the abrasive nuclear team under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And second, that beneath the atmospherics lay very sharp differences that will be hard to overcome by the pending November deadline. A senior U.S. official speaking on background in accordance with State Department protocol for these talks says the world will hear a lot from Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the next week-and-a-half about the nuclear negotiations, including their need to keep their current capacity for enriching uranium. But the status quo says the official is not doable for either side. Iran analyst Ali Vaez, with the International Crisis Group, says the best he can hope for from these New York talks would be an agreement on how to define the size and scope of Iran's enrichment program. He says technical though it may be, the debate is also fundamentally political. What does each side need to be able to sell any deal back home?

ALI VAEZ: And that's the conversation that the parties have had so far in the bilateral negotiations. We have to see if they can come up with something concrete in terms of proposals in New York. But this is the moment of truth for them.

KENYON: Additional firepower and pressure will be coming here next week as top diplomats and heads of state arrive for the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Secretary of State John Kerry is considered likely to join the nuclear discussions at some point. So far, however, Presidents Obama and Rouhani are not expected to meet on this or any other topic. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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