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Heading Into Iran Nuclear Talks, A Diplomatic Slump


The up and down Iran nuclear talks appear to be in a down cycle as negotiators prepare to meet tomorrow in Moscow. Difficult talks in Baghdad last month were followed by contentious comments on both sides. And all this as new oil sanctions against Iran are due to take effect July 1st. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Moscow.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: This will be the second consecutive set of talks hosted by an Iranian ally, but that doesn't seem to be bringing Tehran any closer to its most important goals - easing economic sanctions that are slowly strangling its economy, and getting the international side to admit that Iran has the right to enrich its own uranium. In a recent interview with the BBC, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, reverted to an earlier stage of Iranian rhetoric. He insisted that sanctions are hurting ordinary citizens but not the nuclear program, which at this stage mainly involves building centrifuges to enrich more uranium.

ALI ASHGAR SOLTANIEH: None of the sanctions have had any effect on nuclear activities, because all 90 pieces of centrifuges are manufactured by our own. And the report of the Director-General IAEA shows: anytime they impose sanctions, the number of centrifuge machines were increased and the work accelerated.

KENYON: Western analysts say the sanctions have slowed the nuclear program in some ways, not to mention cyberattacks and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. But the evidence of Iran's growing stockpile of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent, well on the way to weapons-grade, is irrefutable. A June 15th report from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security highlighted the enrichment going on at Iran's underground facility at Fordo, saying that work is shortening the theoretical time it might take Iran to build a weapon if it chose to do so, thereby increasing the chance of a confrontation. The international demands made to Iranian negotiators in Baghdad included stopping the work at Fordo and getting rid of Iran's 20 percent enriched uranium. But other analysts believe the short-term risk of a military strike is small. Mehdi Khaliji, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, studied Shiite theology at the holy city of Qom. He says it's not just American political analysts who believe that the Obama administration is determined to keep the Iran issue under control during the election campaign. Khaliji says the leadership in Tehran has made the same calculation.

MEHDI KHALIJI: They closely and carefully watch domestic politics of United States. At least before November, Iranian regime feels that they have time, they are not in rush.

KENYON: Khaliji says in the longer term, the pain of sanctions might force Tehran to make nuclear concessions, but certainly not before November, when they'll be interested to see who wins.

KHALIJI: They believe that President Obama is not willing to launch a military attack before November. On the other hand, if he cut an important deal with Iran and wouldn't get elected in November, the next president may undo things. For all these reasons, they believe that before November nothing important happens.

KENYON: But for Iran's oil sector, something important is about to happen. New European sanctions are due to hit already-sagging oil and gas revenues. It will take an unexpected diplomatic breakthrough to change that trajectory, and hardliners on both sides are trying to keep that from happening. Recently, both Iranian and U.S. lawmakers sent strongly worded messages to their leaders, demanding that no concessions be made in these talks. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Moscow.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.