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Iran Nuclear Negotiations Continue Past Deadline


At the Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland, the end of March came and went without a deal. The U.S. and its allies had been hoping to make an agreement with Iran on the major points of a political settlement over its nuclear program. Missing a self-imposed deadline is one thing, but it is still not clear if Iran and six world powers can reach agreement at any time on some of the toughest issues. Joining us from Lausanne is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: What happened or rather didn't happen?

KENYON: Well, the meetings yesterday were almost continuous. They started early in the morning, and they ended early this morning. But unlike the interim nuclear accord back in November 2013, when they came straggling out at 4 in the morning with a deal, this time we have conflicting accounts of what happened. Three foreign ministers - half the international contingent - are gone. That's Russia, China and France. Iran's foreign minister says almost all the issues were resolved, and they hope to work on some more today. Interestingly, Iran's closest ally on the international side, Russia's Sergei Lavrov, before he left, was the only one to say there was a deal on all aspects. But that was denied. So the big question now is whether they're back in the room hammering out these final issues or working on some kind of announcement about what progress has been made and what's left over.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to figure out why the final issues are so difficult. Don't we have two governments that say they are ready for a deal and basic outlines of a deal that have been known for some time now?

KENYON: Absolutely. I think for one thing, these issues get to the core principles for one side or the other. Iran urgently needs sanctions relief, for instance. And everyone from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down has demanded it. The West, meanwhile, is very concerned about what could happen towards the end of any deal, when restrictions might be eased after some confidence building. And also, many of these restrictions, they're kind of interlocking pieces. So if you shift one solution, you might have to go back and adjust others that you thought were finished to make the whole puzzle fit together again. This is true of something, like, say, the nuclear fuel stockpile. If they don't ship it out of the country - Iran, that is - something else has to happen to cover that contingency.

INSKEEP: Well, that seems important, particularly because we're not actually talking about putting together the entire jigsaw puzzle here, but maybe just the outer border of it and filling in the middle part later, in the final technical part of an agreement. What are the implications of maybe getting a deal in the next few days, if they do, but leaving some hard stuff for later?

KENYON: Well, it's early to be definitive about this. They could still come through with a conclusion on all the big issues. But clearly that was the goal by the U.S. going in, political agreement on every major aspect of this, leaving pretty much the technical drafting for the last three months. If they've got to defer some of the toughest issues until that phase, critics will have a lot more ammunition to work with. Congress could start meddling in this nuclear diplomacy with its own legislation. The Israeli prime minister is continuing to warn about what a deal might lead to. So supporters are hoping they can work out these final issues because leaving it incomplete is problematic.

INSKEEP: In the absence of an agreement, what have you been able to read into the mood of the negotiators, the glimpses of them, as they come and go?

KENYON: Well, I think there is some frustration. The departure of the Russian, French and Chinese foreign ministers, diverging opinions about what's going on, it all calls to mind something analysts were saying years ago when this all started. Is there an effective nuclear deal that both the West and Iran can live with? And that's what we're waiting to find out.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Lausanne, Switzerland. Peter, thanks.

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

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