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Iran Shuts Down Latest Nuclear Talks


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The latest round of international talks on Iran's nuclear program concluded. In Istanbul today on a sour note, the lead international negotiator said she was disappointed that Iran wasn't ready to respond to the proposals that six world powers brought to the table. Negotiators from those six nations want verifiable assurances from Iran that it is solely interested in civilian uses for nuclear technology, while Iran wants to end sanctions that have damaged its economy.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is at the site of the talks along the shores of the Basra Strait. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And why didn't this round succeed do you think?

KENYON: Well, I think we'd have to say the low expectations have been met. But perhaps there's a glimmer of optimism for the future, and that's because Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy Chief, did say the main message was that after a day and a half of talks that this was not the conclusion she was hoping for, that the international side came prepared with practical proposals, detailed, were ensuring greater transparency in Iran's nuclear program and with some confidence-building measures.

But she said Iran just wasn't ready to respond without putting preconditions on the talks. And that wasn't acceptable. She said there's no further talks planned but she did say the door remains open should Iran make a decision to respond at some point in the future.

SIMON: And what kind of conditions did Iran put out there?

KENYON: There were two basic conditions, Scott. The international side would put forward a proposal, as I understand it, and the Iranians would respond, well, OK, but first international sanctions should be suspended. Or Iran's right to control the entire nuclear fuel cycle - in other words, the right to enrich uranium ought to be recognized and respected by the rest of the world.

Now, there's many nuclear experts who will tell you as a practical matter, Iran's already demonstrated the ability to enrich uranium and at some point that could well be part of the deal that is in exchange for, say, much more intrusive inspections or more guarantees that no fuel's being diverted into a weapons program.

But that's not something the international side will be likely to put on the table at this point.

SIMON: We understand there nearly was an agreement on the fuel swap proposal to assist a medical research reactor in Tehran in 2009. Is there any hope of trying to bring back the basic form of that agreement?

KENYON: There was hope of trying to bring back a modified version of that. In 2009, as you mentioned, it was agreed to temporarily but then Iran backed out of it. Now, a modified version would have to involve quite a bit more of Iran's stockpile of uranium because it's significantly larger now. But, again, Catherine Ashton said Iran wasn't prepared to respond substantively. They still had these preconditions. She, again, holds out hope that may be resurrected in the future however.

SIMON: Peter, from what you can discern there, are either side feeling much pressure to make any much progress?

KENYON: Well, that actually is one of the more interesting questions because Iran has a lot going on right now. There's economic subsidy reform going on that's raising a lot of prices of basic goods on the street, causing a lot of economic pain. There is political infighting among the conservative political classes there.

In that atmosphere, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is very keen to hang onto important, extremely popular issues, such as the nuclear rights issue. So, that makes it difficult on their side.

And then on the international side, especially, analysts say in Washington and in Israel there's some satisfaction now at these effects of sanctions and at the covert operations, such as the Stuxnet computer virus that apparently attacked Iran's centrifuges. So, that leaves people feeling that neither side is really feeling pushed to make difficult choices right now.

At the same time, you have to say that enrichment program of Iran is still plodding along, still bringing it closer to having a nuclear weapon, should it want one, and there's no guarantee conditions are going to get any better. So, we shall see what happens.

And, as I said, there is no next round of talks at this point but Lady Ashton says the door is still open.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you so much.

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