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U.S. and Iran will meet for another attempt at reviving the nuclear deal

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

There are new talks in Vienna this week to revive the Iran nuclear deal. That deal gave Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. But the Trump White House pulled out of that agreement in 2018, reimposing sanctions. Since then, Iran's nuclear program has cranked back up, as have regional tensions. Diplomats from the U.S., other world powers and Iran will gather again tomorrow. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

SNELL: So first of all, what are these talks going to look like this week?

KELEMEN: Well, probably a lot like they did earlier this year. Iran says that since the U.S. is not in a deal right now, it won't meet directly with U.S. officials. So basically, the Iranians meet with the others - Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany - and those countries, mostly the Europeans, are the go-betweens with the U.S. U.S. envoy Robert Malley often points out that things would go a lot more quickly if the Iranians would just meet face-to-face with him. But the Iranians haven't shown any interest in that. They put these talks on hold for months and during that time elected a new president, a hard-line conservative. So when it comes to reviving this deal, Malley told NPR that the ball is really in Iran's court right now. Take a listen.

ROBERT MALLEY: If Iran chooses - and it really is at this point, I think, an Iranian choice - if they choose not to go back into the deal, then obviously we're going to have to see other efforts, diplomatic and otherwise, to try to address Iran's nuclear ambitions.

SNELL: What does he mean by diplomatic and otherwise?

KELEMEN: Well, diplomatic pressure, more sanctions and then the otherwise, I guess, would be the military option. Critics of the Iran nuclear deal think the Biden administration needs to be much tougher and much more explicit about threatening military action. You know, there have been acts of sabotage. Israel is believed to have been behind those and the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist last year, and a lot of critics of the 2015 deal think that this is really the best way to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions at this point. It's what the Trump administration called the maximum pressure campaign.

SNELL: Right.

KELEMEN: But others warn that this approach is really backfiring. Iran is really just plowing ahead, making technical advances that could get them enough fuel for a bomb pretty soon - not the bomb, but enough fuel for it. Take a listen to Kelsey Davenport. She's with the Arms Control Association, and she's a supporter of the nuclear diplomacy.

KELSEY DAVENPORT: While I think it's important to recognize that the Trump administration, you know, manufactured this crisis, you know, Iran's actions are really prolonging it. And we are at the point where Iran's nuclear advances I think run the risk of driving the United States and the Europeans away from negotiations to restore the deal.

KELEMEN: She calls this a very dangerous game by Iran, so the stakes are really high for these talks in Vienna.

SNELL: With the stakes being that high, what do we know about Iran's position, going into these meetings?

KELEMEN: Iran says the onus is on the U.S. to get back into the deal first by lifting all sanctions. You know, the Iranians want to be able to sell oil again more easily than they are now, and they want to do other business to revive their economy. And the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, is less open to dealing with the West than the last president was, and he really wants to show his people that he's driving a hard bargain here.

SNELL: So is the Biden administration expecting any breakthroughs this week?

KELEMEN: I don't think there's a lot of optimism. You know, there were six rounds of these talks earlier this year. The U.S. wanted to pick up where they left off, but that seems unlikely with this new Iranian government, and Rob Malley, the U.S. envoy, might spend much of the week just trying to figure out how to deal with this new Iranian president. But both sides do have interest in making some progress, maybe some small steps. You know, Iran needs to improve its economy, and the Biden administration would like to avoid a real crisis with Iran.

SNELL: That's NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much for following all of this.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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

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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.
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