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Pressure is on to wrap up Iran nuclear deal talks

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The talks over the Iran nuclear deal appear to be coming to a head either with an agreement or without one. This is the effort to bring the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the agreement that former President Trump pulled out of in 2018. Trump said the deal wasn't tough enough and slapped on sweeping economic sanctions that had previously been lifted. Iran then went ahead, methodically ramping up its nuclear program again. Now, diplomats from the U.S. and Iran, along with France, Germany and other countries in the original deal, are in Vienna, and they say the pressure is on to wrap up talks soon. NPR's Peter Kenyon is there and joins us now. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.

PFEIFFER: Why does this seem to be the time when this is considered urgent?

KENYON: Well, this is something President Biden campaigned on - undoing former President Donald Trump's move to pull the U.S. out of the deal and impose sanctions on Iran. And Washington has said it needs to get done now, right away, or the U.S. would start looking at walking away from the deal itself. Other world powers would also like to see the agreement restored. And the other reason, obviously, that it's urgent is because experts say Iran is dangerously close to having weapons-grade uranium. Now, that's uranium enriched to 90% purity. Iran's already enriching to 60% percent, and the jump to 90% would be a lot easier than what they've done so far. That doesn't mean they would have a bomb. They claim not to want one. But it's a step toward the uranium fuel they would need for it.

PFEIFFER: Do we know what they have mostly worked out?

KENYON: Well, they're talking about a sequence of events where the U.S. phases out sanctions and Iran phases back into compliance with the agreement. Tehran might, for instance, need to ship out some of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, maybe to Russia, which has played that role in the past and is still a big part of these talks. Now, remember; Iran says its program is entirely peaceful, primarily to generate electricity, but that only requires fuel enriched to less than 4% purity, nothing like the 60% they've got now. And there's also talks about a possible prisoner exchange here between the U.S. and Iran. We'll be looking for possible news on that front.

PFEIFFER: And what's holding things up? Is it some of the items you just mentioned?

KENYON: Well, Iran's demanding guarantees. They want to make sure the U.S. won't walk away from the agreement again. President Biden has vowed not to do that, but he can't speak for future presidents. And the consequences of failure here could be quite serious. Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group, told me that a breakdown of these talks will likely lead to a series of steps, starting with new U.S. sanctions on Iran. But there's more to come after that, including a possible censure by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Here's some more of what he said.

ALI VAEZ: Iran is likely to retaliate by ratcheting up its nuclear program or ratcheting down inspections of its program, and that is likely to be used as ammunition to take the Iranian nuclear file back to the U.N. Security Council and snap back the U.N. sanctions, which will be officially the end of the 2015 nuclear deal.

KENYON: Now, on the other hand, he says, if things go more positively, there could be an agreement in a matter of days.

PFEIFFER: And how are they trying to wrap things up?

KENYON: Well, the IAEA director general is heading to Tehran this weekend. He could work out a path forward to resolve one outstanding issue - an explanation for traces of radioactive material found at four Iranian sites. And in the meantime, talks continue here in Vienna. It's possible there could be some news on that prisoner exchange. And remember - even if they do restore this nuclear deal, critics back in Washington and in Israel are likely to oppose it just as vigorously as they did the first time.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Vienna. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TOUGHCATS SONG, "STORMY WEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.