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There are signs negotiators are making progress toward a nuclear deal with Iran

DAVID GURA, HOST:

For the first time in months, there are signs that negotiators are making progress toward reviving the deal that put limits on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. That was the major agreement the Obama administration made in 2015 and that the Trump administration abandoned in 2018, saying it wasn't tough enough. The talks have been taking place in Vienna, and now they're taking a short break for new year's. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following the story and joins us now from Istanbul. Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GURA: President Biden has been talking about getting back into the nuclear agreement since before he took office. There have been at least seven rounds of talks. Why was this week different?

KENYON: Well, Russia's envoy to the talks sounded quite pleased with the progress made so far. That includes getting Iran to confirm it still agrees with everything they negotiated so far. The Iranian view is also positive, mainly because lifting sanctions is on the table, and that's their big goal, including this question of verification. Iran's been saying there can be no return to the restrictions in the nuclear deal before sanctions are lifted, and that lifting is verified by Tehran - not quite clear how that happens. But in terms of progress, these talks are apparently back on track despite a 5-month pause and despite the election of a new hard-line president in Iran and, of course, despite former President Donald Trump's pullout from the deal in 2018 and reimposition of sanctions. And now, on the other hand, Iran's space launch of a satellite carrier this week is causing concern. France called it regrettable that it happened just as progress was being made at the Vienna talks.

GURA: Just to be clear about this, Peter, Americans are not in the room, right? There are no direct U.S.-Iran talks happening?

KENYON: That is absolutely right; they're not even in the same building. The Europeans, Russians and Chinese - they sit with the Iranians in the quite luxurious Coburg Palace Hotel, and then some of the delegates walk over to the Marriott where the Americans are staying. This does slow things down, but the Iranians say that's the price the U.S. pays for pulling out of the deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran.

GURA: And what are American officials and others, for that matter, saying about how the talks are going?

KENYON: Well, U.S. officials want it done quickly. They don't want talks to drag on while Iran continues to break limits set out in the agreement. For instance, Iran is currently enriching nuclear fuel to 60% purity; that's closer than they've ever been to weapons-grade fuel. Some delegates do seem to think it's possible to wrap up these Vienna talks before the end of January. Certainly, the Biden administration is keen to avoid having to manage a nuclear crisis with Iran. Israel, however, has been pressing for some time for more pressure on Iran, including the threat of military action, if that's what it takes to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.

GURA: Peter, remind us what concerns did critics have with the previous deal that U.S. negotiators will have to navigate as they approach reviving it?

KENYON: Well, one big issue was money - the money that flows to Iran, billions of dollars from its oil sales, that could be used to support the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Iraq. The agreement also doesn't touch on Iran's human rights violations or the Westerners held in Iranian prisons. But supporters of the deal say negotiating those issues later on will be easier, knowing that Iran won't have a nuclear weapon.

GURA: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.