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Iran Talks Intensify On Day Before Deadline

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Negotiators are getting ready to make an important play in what has become a very long game to curb Iran's nuclear plan. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met today with Iran's foreign minister. And Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will also be joining the talks in Vienna. Tomorrow is the deadline for diplomats to come up with a deal.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following the talks and reports that even at the 11th hour, negotiators are still trying to figure out if they can meet the deadline or if yet another extension is needed.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Diplomats here won't rule out a last-minute agreement, but the likelihood of an extension seems to be growing. One Iranian news agency quotes a member of the Iranian delegation as saying talks on an extension could begin tonight.

Ideally, any extension would be part of a framework that includes new evidence of progress. But analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group says it's tricky even finding limited compromises on the big issues remaining. Shrinking Iran's ability to produce nuclear fuel on the one side and lifting international sanctions on the other. He says while it's possible to identify concessions on the Iranian side, getting the West to lift sanctions is more of a challenge.

ALI VAEZ: This really boils down to the fundamental problem that we have in the talks at this point, which is the difference in the nature of the parties' concessions. Meaning that it's much more difficult to turn sanctions on and off than to turn centrifuges on and off.

KENYON: What negotiators have said about sanctions is that under an agreement, Iran would eventually see all sanctions lifted, but at the beginning, a suspension of some sanctions is the best Tehran can hope for.

This appears to be sinking in in Tehran. Conservative students and politicians are calling on President Hassan Rouhani not to accept any deal that involves suspending sanctions instead of lifting them entirely. Vaez says this points to another misunderstanding in some quarters. It would be wrong, he says, to assume that the pragmatic, engaging Rouhani has a lower threshold for an acceptable deal than Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

He says Rouhani is the former nuclear negotiator himself and is haunted by the ghosts of failure a decade ago.

VAEZ: Because he is the one who in 2003 to 2005 made concrete concessions for the promises of incentives that never came. If President Rouhani goes back to sell the deal and says I've accepted all these restrictions that are concrete, are immediate, but the West has only suspended sanctions, people will accuse him of being naive.

KENYON: This history of mistrust flows both ways. Critics in the region and the West argue that Iran almost certainly had a nuclear weapons program in the past. And a current or future covert program is a critical danger. Here's how nuclear expert David Albright put it recently.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It's a very big mistake if you don't deal with these past questions about Iran's work on nuclear weapons. I would say no deal until Iran has shown concrete progress on addressing these past military nuclear issues.

KENYON: At the moment, negotiators are preparing for a very long day tomorrow and at least the possibility of more long days to come. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.