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Indirect Talks Over Nuclear Deal To Begin Between U.S., Iran

NOEL KING, HOST:

Representatives of the U.S. and Iran are speaking through mediators today in Vienna about the Iran nuclear deal. These are discussions. We cannot call them negotiations. The Iranian government has refused to negotiate anything until the U.S. lifts sanctions. The delegations are even staying in separate hotels across the street from each other. So there is tension here. And an attack on an Iranian nuclear facility over the weekend complicates things even more. Tehran blames Israel for that. With me now is Corey Hinderstein. She led the Iran task force at the Department of Energy. Good morning.

COREY HINDERSTEIN: Good morning.

KING: What are these discussions supposed to accomplish?

HINDERSTEIN: These discussions are really aimed at a simple but very complicated challenge, which is how to get the United States back in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - or JCPOA - and how to get Iran a path towards its compliance, meaning to reverse all of the nuclear activities that they have resumed in response to U.S. action.

KING: I understand why it is being done, the separate hotels, the not talking directly to each other. But is the fact that the U.S. and Iran are not speaking undermining this effort?

HINDERSTEIN: It certainly makes what's already a challenging situation even more complicated. What you have is diplomatic teams that are in separate spaces that instead of being able to talk directly to each other, which also includes being able to read body language and interrupt if something is going off the rails immediately, it means that you have to put a delay in that process. So the U.S. team would formulate a message, formulate an idea, send that across through the European Union coordinators, and then have to wait and see what response comes back. In a way, it's like having to speak with a delay. We've all had that experience...

KING: Yes.

HINDERSTEIN: ...On the phone or on a Zoom call in recent times.

KING: And we both know - we all know it just makes things more difficult. Also making things more difficult, this attack on the Natanz nuclear facility over the weekend. How does that put a wrinkle in these particular negotiations? Iran is blaming Israel, not the United States. And yet this certainly does further complicate the situation.

HINDERSTEIN: Well, we already have a tense situation. And what we saw in response to whatever actions happened at Natanz - there are a lot of reports that there was damage to some of their uranium enrichment facilities. Their gas centrifuge machines may have been damaged. But in response to that, Iran has also taken the step of increasing its uranium enrichment levels. Now, we don't need to get into a major, complicated technical discussion. But basically, that ratchets up the tension a little bit more and puts more pressure on these talks. And what's important here is that Iran has taken significant technical steps with regard to its nuclear program, really, over the last couple of years. But all of those steps are reversible. This problem is a technical problem. But the technical problem is not the most challenging piece. The most challenging piece is really going to be unwinding the net of sanctions that was placed on Iran as a result of the Trump administration's withdrawal from the deal.

KING: And so where might we see a breakthrough? Could the U.S. give up some sanctions?

HINDERSTEIN: The United States does have some room to move. The president can act within his authority to remove some of the sanctions. But the problem is, will Iran require all the sanctions to be removed, which would include those that were placed for - in reaction to terrorist activity and other nefarious activity in the region? Or will Iran accept a reversal of the nuclear-related sanctions, which really is all that's required of the United States under the deal? This flexibility is going to be extremely important to getting to an end point.

KING: Corey Hinderstein, now a vice president for international fuel cell strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Thank you so much.

HINDERSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.