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Can Iran, The West Overcome Distrust To Make A Nuclear Deal?


Tomorrow, nuclear negotiators for Iran and six world powers will meet in Geneva. It's a chance to see whether positive signals from Iran's new president can be translated into real progress at the table. Iran wants punitive sanctions lifted, but it's insisting on its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that with hardliners waiting in the wings, momentum toward an agreement needs to be generated quickly.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The last time Iran offered to restrict its nuclear activities and open itself up to more U.N. inspections, the chief negotiation was Hassan Rouhani, now president. That offer, a decade ago, shriveled on the vine and since then, Iran has gone from a few hundred centrifuges enriching uranium to some 18,000.

Now, Rouhani is back from Iran's political wilderness and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam at Tehran University says the new team is serious about getting a deal. He told Al Jazeera's English channel, though, that the recent positive signals can't overcome decades of mistrust and hostility overnight.

SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: The important point is that the West does not trust Iran and Iranian leaders do not trust the West. There are many - the Iranians within the Iranian leadership, genuinely, they believe that United States is only after regime change. So I think it is vitally important that two sides begin to trust one another.

KENYON: A senior administration official says Iran new lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, is expected to lay on the table a new proposal, adding that depending on what's in the proposal, the international side is quite ready to move on Iran's demands, including sanctions relief. The broad parameters of a possible deal seem clear. Iran currently enriches uranium to 5 percent for energy and to about 20 percent for medical isotopes.

The West worries that given enough 20 percent enriched uranium, Iran could someday make a covert dash to 90 percent or weapons-grade uranium. Iran's protestations that it has no desire for a weapon are appreciated, says the U.S. administration official, but must be backed up by actions.

Some analysts, such as Scott Lucas at England's University of Birmingham, believe a key sticking point may be whether Washington can live with any level of uranium enrichment by Iran.

SCOTT LUCAS: It depends on the Americans. Fact of the matter is that the Iranians have already put the elements of a deal on the table, in my opinion, that they're willing to go to 5 percent enrichment, giving up the 20 in return for guaranteed supply. But they want recognition of that right to enrich and they want a significant lifting of the sanctions. And I think Europeans recognize it. Whether they can convince the Americans or help bump the Americans into this, I don't know.

KENYON: Former diplomat Ryan Crocker, who has experience talking with Iran, says the Iranians may well try to use this opening to create divisions among the international side, which includes Russia and China along with the U.S., Britain, France and Germany. That thought may have occurred to the negotiators gathering here.

The senior administration official says discussions today confirmed that Iran will find a very unified international team as the talks open. Iran analyst Ali Vaez with the International Crisis Group says expectations need to be tempered but not dropped altogether. Vaez says the hawkish insistence on zero uranium enrichment shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of concrete gains that may be achievable now.

ALI VAEZ: At the end of the day, the negotiators should not let the perfect to be the enemy of the good. If they can get an agreement that would thicken the line between Iran's military nuclear capability and peaceful nuclear capability, they should not let that go because of maximalist demands such as zero enrichment.

KENYON: One of the strongest opponents of a nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has striven to match Rouhani's charm offensive with a hawkish media blitz of his own. Members of Congress, meanwhile, tossed in their own hard-line offer.

If Iran gives up all its uranium enrichment, Congress would leave all sanctions in place, but not impose new ones. Against that backdrop, the negotiators will meet and try to establish some mutual trust. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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