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U.S. and Iran to talk nuclear deal on Monday

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The U.S. and Iran begin high-stakes talks on Monday in Vienna. European diplomats will be intermediaries. That's because Iran refuses to meet U.S. officials directly, who are trying to revive a nuclear deal that the Trump administration left. The Iranians have since made a lot of advances in their nuclear program, and that has diplomats worried, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Biden administration has been trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, putting Iran's nuclear program back in a box in exchange for sanctions relief. But after six rounds of talks, Iran pushed the pause button. Now Iran has a new president with new demands. U.S. envoy Robert Malley told NPR's Morning Edition that Iran's latest rhetoric does not augur well for the Vienna negotiations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT MALLEY: I believe in being prepared. I don't believe in prejudging, and so let's see what they say when they're at the table. But obviously the indications they've given - and we're not the only ones who've heard those indications - are not particularly encouraging.

KELEMEN: Iran wants to see the U.S. lift all sanctions first, since it was the U.S. that pulled out of the deal. They also want a way to guarantee that the U.S. won't abandon it again, even after the next presidential election. Malley says those are non-starters.

MALLEY: If those are the kinds of demands they make, that's tantamount to saying, we don't really want a deal; we just want to spend the next few months building our nuclear program.

KELEMEN: The U.S. does not have the luxury of time, says Michael Singh of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Iran's nuclear program is advancing rapidly. It's now enriching uranium to 60%.

MICHAEL SINGH: The jump from 60 to 90%, 90% being the level of enrichment you would need for nuclear weapons-grade fuel, is a much shorter leap than the leap that the Iranians have already made. And there's no real conceivable civilian purpose for enriching to this level.

KELEMEN: Singh, who served in the Bush administration, argues that it is time for a Plan B, either an entirely new deal or a much tougher U.S. position with a credible military threat.

SINGH: Getting the Iranians to believe it, especially when the overall thrust of our strategy in the world, our grand strategy, is to focus less on the Middle East and more on Asia, is, I think, tough and may require steps that the Biden administration is reluctant to take.

KELEMEN: Israel is believed to have been behind recent attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and the targeted assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist. Suzanne DiMaggio of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that the sabotage is only complicating matters.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: It's just incentivizing the Iranians to plow ahead with the nuclear program, to continue making advancements. So it's not working. Also, I think it could lead to a miscalculation if we see the Iranians now embroiled in tit-for-tat escalations with the Israelis.

KELEMEN: DiMaggio doesn't see any great options for a Plan B, but she admits it will be tricky to negotiate with the new Iranian government. She's led informal diplomatic contacts with Iran and describes the new team this way.

DIMAGGIO: They are decidedly more conservative and hardline than their predecessors. They're coming to the table with something to prove. They have some chips on their shoulder. They're going to be looking to be able to say that they got more than their predecessors.

KELEMEN: Still, she says, they have an incentive to get relief from U.S. sanctions and show Iranians they can improve their country's economy.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.