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Talks in Vienna aim to revive the deal that put limits on Iran's nuclear program

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There are more signs that negotiators want to wrap up the Iran nuclear talks soon, maybe by the middle of March or even sooner. There are the talks in Vienna to revive the agreement that put limits on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Now, that deal unraveled when the Trump administration reimposed sanctions and Iran ramped up its program in response. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul to discuss it. Peter, so where do talks stand? What's left to work out here?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, on a visit to Qatar just spoke about significant progress in Vienna. But as usual, some of the tougher issues were left until the last part of the talks to work out. Tehran, for instance, wants time to verify that all major sanctions have been completely lifted. It also wants guarantees that the U.S. won't pull out again, as it did in 2018. The U.S. has said guarantees aren't really possible.

The Iranian foreign minister, Amir-Abdollahian, said over the weekend it's time for world powers to show some political will, to reach an agreement that respects Tehran's red lines. He also gave an interview to an Iranian news outlet in which he discussed the talks. Here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: He's saying the Western negotiators have to show real flexibility because it's their response to the Iranian proposals that he says will determine, quote, "if the talks will come to fruition" within a few days or a few weeks. Just a Russian envoy, meanwhile, said it could be done by the end of this month. So we're really going to have to wait and see what the next few days bring.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, absolutely. And the Iranian government is firmly in the hands of hard-liners at really every level. And, of course, the Supreme Leader has the final say. So why is this government apparently willing to resurrect the nuclear agreement?

KENYON: Well, money's a big part of it. The agreement would mean an influx of funds to Tehran. And this, you might recall, was one of the major complaints voiced by critics years ago when this happened the first time, that Iran would be getting a lot of cash. It could flow to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the intelligence, the military sectors or proxy militias like Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iran-backed militias in Iraq. In other words, Iran's malign behavior, as the critics call it, could be enhanced.

But for ordinary Iranians, there's a whole nother focus. The semblance of a normal economy is desperately wanted there. They're hoping that they can see a little more income in their lives.

MARTINEZ: And what would the prospect of the U.S. returning to the agreement mean in Washington?

KENYON: Well, there, it would be a political and foreign policy win for President Joe Biden, first. It would be cheered by supporters of international diplomacy. But it's also likely to spark another backlash from conservatives. Republicans have been sounding like they're very much looking forward to using a restored nuclear deal as a cudgel against Democrats, especially with the 2024 elections coming up.

MARTINEZ: So, Peter, what do you see as the most important issue going forward for the Iranian nuclear program?

KENYON: Well, obviously for the U.S. and its allies, ensuring that Iran's nuclear program remains civilian and peaceful. That there's no military program is paramount. One key to that is maintaining access for U.N. inspectors to Iranian nuclear sites. Now, since the U.S. violated the deal in 2018, Tehran has, at times, limited or denied access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So if that were to continue or worsen, the value of the nuclear deal could be significantly compromised. Beyond that, the Biden administration has expressed some desire to talk about things like Iran's ballistic missile program. And so far, the Raisi government has shown no interest in doing something like that.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORA VAN ELKEN'S "BOREALIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.