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Iran expected to drive hard bargain in nuclear talks


Multi-nation talks pick up once more in Vienna tomorrow to try to revive the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump White House pulled out of that Obama-era agreement in 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran. Iran responded by breaking limits it had accepted on its nuclear program. Since the last talks about six months ago, Iran has elected a hard-line president who appears intent on showing he's going to drive a hard bargain. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The approach to this round of talks has not sounded encouraging. The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency visited Tehran last week. And Rafael Grossi says Iran still won't give his inspectors access to key nuclear sites, undermining their ability to do their jobs under the terms of the nuclear deal. Iran has focused on its own demands for the talks, expressed here on Iran's English-language press TV channel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Iran says it won't settle for anything less than U.S. sanctions removed all at once in a verifiable manner. Iran also wants strict guarantees that the U.S. would not abandon the agreement again.

KENYON: The direct negotiations will take place among Iran, France, the U.K., Germany, Russia and China, with some shuttle diplomacy to connect with the American delegation. Iran says it won't meet directly with the U.S. because it pulled out of the deal. And the Foreign Ministry under Iran's new government says the U.S. has to make up for that withdrawal. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said any American efforts to, quote, "sell a fake narrative" wouldn't help them in Vienna.


SAEED KHATIBZADEH: (Through interpreter) Mr. Trump is gone. But it looks like the factory of producing falsehoods and fake news of the United States has not been shut down. If they are forgetful, they must know that the world has not forgotten that it was the U.S. that left the nuclear deal, and it's the current U.S. administration which is pursuing Trump's maximum failure policy.

KENYON: Maximum failure is Tehran's derisive relabeling of the Trump administration's maximum pressure policy toward Iran. U.S. officials say it's up to Iran to demonstrate that it does want to revive the deal, with the alternative being ongoing sanctions and pressure. Analysts following the talks say Iran still has strong motivation to see the nuclear deal revived, primarily for the economic benefit sanctions relief would provide. Sanam Vakil, at the London-based think tank Chatham House, says what Tehran really needs is a nuclear deal that's sustainable.

SANAM VAKIL: In practice, that means that they cannot afford the economic yo-yoing of their economy should another U.S. president decide to withdraw from the deal in a few years. So they're looking for assurances, some kind of process that would protect the deal and thereby protect their economy from future vulnerabilities.

KENYON: U.S. officials have repeatedly said they don't see how they could bind the hands of a future president. Recently, Washington floated the idea of an interim agreement, something less than a full restoration of the 2015 deal known as the JCPOA. Vakil says that strikes her as kind of a Band-Aid to at least ensure that Iran doesn't gain the capacity to acquire a nuclear weapon.

VAKIL: But I don't think it's a really viable Band-Aid over a longer-term period because it would, A, force international states to acknowledge that the JCPOA is formally dead, and, B, would require everyone to invest in new negotiations. And it seems hard to imagine that everyone has the energy to do that right now.

KENYON: For now, the parties to the deal still prefer diplomacy over resorting to economic pressure or the threat of military conflict, which critics have long argued is the only way to deal with Iran. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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