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A new round of talks for Iran nuclear deal begins Monday

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next week, the United States returns to the bargaining table with Iran - separate tables, to be exact, but at least in the same city. Iran has refused to meet face-to-face with Americans about rejoining a nuclear agreement, but Iran is talking through intermediaries in Vienna, Austria, next week. President Biden's administration wants back into a deal that the Trump administration abandoned. Iran slowly went out of compliance with that agreement in protest against new U.S. sanctions.

In a moment, we'll hear from the U.S. negotiator in these talks. We begin with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's following the story from Istanbul. He's covered Iran for years. Peter, welcome.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hope you're enjoying what is a holiday weekend, at least in the United States. There was, of course, a big pause while Iran changed presidential administrations over the summer - five-month pause. What changed in that time?

KENYON: Well, one thing didn't change, and that was the sanctions. Despite Joe Biden campaigning on getting the U.S. back into the nuclear deal, the sanctions imposed under Donald Trump remain. But what has changed is the state of Iran's nuclear program - i.e., it's more advanced. Now, Tehran has always insisted the nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But today, Iran's stockpile of nuclear fuel looks very different. It's been enriching uranium to 60% purity. That's a relatively short step from 90%, or weapons-grade fuel. It's also apparently taking steps towards having more advanced centrifuges to enrich fuel even faster. So these things are obviously number of concerns.

But there are calls from some U.S. allies, notably Israel, saying the only thing to do now is more sanctions, more pressure and, if necessary, sabotage the nuclear program in Iran. Proponents of the deal, on the other hand, think there is still time to reach an agreement and maybe even move on to talk about other issues like Iran's ballistic missile program. However, regarding these talks coming up, analyst Sanam Vakil at Chatham House in London told me, look; you've got new negotiating team on Iran's side of the table, a significant lapse of time since the last round of talks in June. So right now, there are more questions than answers, including about the new Iran president, Ebrahim Raisi.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Glad you mentioned the new negotiating team, the new Iranian president. There's also a new foreign minister. The same clerical regime, I guess, but the officials in front are different. Are they taking a different approach?

KENYON: Well, so far, President Raisi is highlighting a difficult condition that he says Washington has to agree to. And that's a guarantee - a guarantee the U.S. isn't going to pull out of any new deal the way Donald Trump did with the 2015 accord. The Americans say, well, we can't really guarantee that we can bind the hands of a future U.S. president. So if these talks do gain momentum and get back on track, it will be interesting to watch Raisi's attitude toward reaching a deal with the outside world as that prospect comes closer to becoming a reality.

INSKEEP: How does the rest of the world fit in? And by the rest of the world, I mean the other world powers that were part of this agreement and remain part of the agreement.

KENYON: Right. The U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China - they also have an interest in verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear program, and they will be talking directly with Iran. The U.S. delegation, as you alluded to, will be in a different room 'cause it's not part of the deal right now. One of the biggest concerns, of course - lack of access for U.N. nuclear inspectors. Even camera footage has been inaccessible of at least one site. Another concern is that Tehran is latching onto this whole issue of verification for its own purposes. It's now saying, we want to be able to verify that sanctions have been fully lifted, and then we'll think about fulfilling our commitments. No one knows how long that might take if that's agreed to.

INSKEEP: Can each side look at this and at least say, it is in our interest for the United States to get back into this deal? On a basic level, does it seem to be in each side's interest?

KENYON: Well, in theory absolutely, yes. The U.S. and all the international partners want limits on Iran's nuclear program. Iran's got to have its economy out from under the pain of economic sanctions. It's seen protests in several cities; people are really tired of chronic shortages, high prices. But diplomats say time is running out. And it's very worrying steps that are happening. And critics are continuing to say increased pressure's the best response. We'll see what happens with these talks on Monday.

INSKEEP: Peter, it's always a pleasure to get your insights. Thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.