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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Iran Nuclear Talks Resume In Vienna

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend the first day of the second round of P5+1 talks with Iran at the UN headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 18, 2014. (Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend the first day of the second round of P5+1 talks with Iran at the UN headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 18, 2014. (Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran and six major powers resume talks today in Vienna over a permanent nuclear agreement. The talks aim to settle international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for lifting the tight web of sanctions on Iran.

U.S. and European officials say they hope the Ukraine crisis won’t complicate the talks, however there are concerns the escalating crisis could have an effect on the surprising unity the six-power group has shown in recent years.

NPR’s Peter Kenyon discusses the nuclear talks and how the crisis in Ukraine might affect the negotiations, with Here & Now’s Robin Young.


  • Peter Kenyon, international correspondent for NPR, based in Istanbul, Turkey.



From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

And they've been somewhat obscured by other news, but talks over Iran's nuclear program resumed today in Vienna. Iran and five - six countries, rather, known as the P5+1 gathering to discuss what the EU called the nitty-gritty. They're working out the details of a deal that would curb Iran's nuclear program and end sanctions on that country. But the talks come, of course, in this tense time between the West and Russia over Ukraine, and it's unclear whether or not those tensions will spill over onto the negotiating table in Vienna. NPR correspondent Peter Kenyon is in Vienna. Start with what came out of today's talks, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, as best we know, Robin, there was one distraction from the nuclear issues today, and it had to do with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her recent visit to Iran. She had what Iran calls an uncoordinated meeting with women's rights activists that has not been popular in Tehran. According to Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, this meeting came up briefly. But from there the discussion quickly moved on to nuclear issues.

YOUNG: Well, so there's that. And how big an impact is Russia's annexation of Crimea having on these talks? Much has been made of how Vladimir Putin has been a partner with the U.S. in Iran and Syria. What happens now?

KENYON: So far Michael Mann, the EU spokesman, says it didn't come up. And it's been focused 99 percent on nuclear issues and not at all on Crimea or Ukraine. Obviously, people are worried about this because a lot of the success we've seen so far, this interim deal that's now in place that was struck last November, for instance, was largely due to the unity of this group called the 5+1. And now with the Ukraine crisis blossoming all over, Russia is in a major dispute with four of the five other members of this six-nation group. So it's something that will be watched as these talks progress.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well - and something I know you are keen on is the construction of Iran's heavy-water reactor. Iran claims it's being used for medical research. Tell us more about it.

KENYON: Well, this really is in some ways a stand-alone issue, although it does get wrapped in later. It's quite different from the main dispute, which is about enriching uranium, because for this kind of reactor, you can just use essentially uranium ore. The problem is with what comes out, the spent fuel later, or what can come out, which is plutonium. And that could be used to fuel nuclear weapons. Iran says it doesn't want the plutonium. It just wants the medical radioisotopes.

But this type of reactor isn't really suited well to that purpose, and experts know all too well that members of the nuclear club such as Israel, India and Pakistan used exactly this kind of reactor when they had a secret nuclear weapons program. Tehran insists it has the right to operate it for peaceful uses and it's not about to dismantle it.

YOUNG: So how much is that issue going to complicate the talks?

KENYON: Well, it already has. It came up toward the end of the talks on the interim accord that's now in effect, and it will come up again. One solution, for instance, is to convert it from a heavy-water to a light-water reactor. That's a good news/bad news answer. The good news is that a light-water reactor produces a lot less plutonium. And there's other technical ways to make sure no weapons-grade fuel would be produced.

The bad news is that once you make that argument, experts say the West is effectively handing Iran more ammunition for its argument that it needs the right to enrich its own uranium, which is something else that they'll be arguing long and hard about here. So even seemingly isolated issues can really complicate things.

YOUNG: Question though: Is it possible to forge an agreement where some third party would come and take the plutonium that's the side effect of the heavy-water reactor?

KENYON: That is possible. There's also even easier ways. Experts tell me that if you just make sure that Iran lets the spent fuel sit for more than two months, it will be cooked to the point where it's no good for weapons use. So there are technical fixes. There just has to be the political will to pursue them.

YOUNG: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Vienna as talks over Iran's nuclear program resume there today. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Robin.

YOUNG: And you are listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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