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World Powers Meet With Iran For Nuclear Talks


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Talks on Iran's nuclear program are taking place today in Istanbul. Negotiators for six world powers are hoping that Iran is prepared to make concessions to back up its claim that it's only interested in nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Concern has been growing that Israel might launch a pre-emptive strike in an effort to derail Iran's uranium enrichment program, which is growing closer to weapons-grade levels. NPR's Peter Kenyon is at the site of the talks in Istanbul. Peter, good morning.


WERTHEIMER: Now, before these talks were set, U.S. officials said their opening position might include a demand that Iran close its enrichment site, which is buried inside a mountain in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom. Peter, is there any chance Iran would agree to something like that or is this an opening gambit?

KENYON: Well, the analysts I spoke to said they hope it's an opening gambit because they view it as a non-starter as far as the Iranians are concerned. It does reflect the mounting concern in places like Israel that if Iran is secretly trying to get a weapon, a nuclear weapon, or the capacity to build one quickly, this deep underground facility would be a likely place to do that and it would be extremely to take out from the air. From Iran's perspective, there's no reason to close the Fordo site. It's on the list of nuclear facilities that the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear agency, regularly inspects more than two dozen times a year. So, these analysts that I spoke with are hoping that progress will be made elsewhere.

WERTHEIMER: So, what do you think is the chance of progress? In the run-up, the Iranian officials suggested their negotiators were coming from Istanbul prepared to make progress. What do you think that means?

KENYON: Well, judging by what the Iranians said, it sounded like they were prepared to talk about limiting their production of 20 percent enriched uranium. This is nominally needed for a medical research reactor in Tehran. But nuclear experts worry that it's much closer to weapons-grade uranium than Iran's previous stockpile. There was an effort and a deal on this subject a couple of years ago, but you may remember, first Iran balked on its commitment and then when it finally agreed, the U.S. had lost interest and was pursuing the sanctions path. If they can get some kind of agreement on limiting the 20 percent uranium enrichment, that would be a small step forward, hardly enough to resolve this issue, but maybe a reason to keep the negotiations process going.

WERTHEIMER: Peter, the pressure on Iran has been escalating dramatically over recent months because of the ever more punitive sanctions approved by the EU and by the United States. Do you think that that is what might be softening Iran's position?

KENYON: It's possible, although officially, the Iranian position is unchanged, which is to say the more you punish us the more defiantly we will cling to our nuclear program, which is, of course, a source of national pride in Iran. But these latest sanctions, by many accounts, have done serious damage to the economy in Iran. So, while it's unlikely Iran would ever admit to responding to pressure, if a face-saving way to make a concession is presented, Tehran might be more likely to go for it now than it was, say, two years ago.

WERTHEIMER: Peter, not present at these talks but very much a factor is Israel, which has been contemplating a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Do officials there believe these talks can reduce that risk?

KENYON: That is exactly the hope, Linda. There's U.S. presidential elections coming. Any Iran crisis would be greatly magnified. There are serious risks of regional destabilization, a possible huge spike in oil prices. Israel says it can't afford to wait until this enrichment site at Fordo is so well-fortified that they can't reach it with their bombs. So, they have a much earlier deadline than the U.S. So, both sides, both Iran and the international players, have a strong incentive to keep the focus on negotiations now and not the military possibilities. The question is whether they can accomplish it.

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is covering the conference in Istanbul. Peter, thank you very much.

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

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.