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Iranian Nuclear Talks Continue As Preliminary Deadline Looms


We begin this hour in Lausanne, Switzerland. That's where Iranian officials and major world leaders are trying to hammer out a framework for placing limits on Iran's nuclear program. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is there with other top diplomats from Russia, Germany, France, Britain and China. They need to reach a deal by tomorrow night under a self-imposed deadline. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering the talks, and he joins us now from Switzerland. And Peter, to start, Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Iran, Russia, the other countries we mentioned - are they going to make this deadline tomorrow?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Excellent question. It seems like the mood changes constantly, Audie. People are up one minute, down the next. Usually, one sign that a deal is imminent is the arrival of the six foreign ministers from those six countries you just rattled off and Iran, of course. They were all here this morning, but Russia's Sergey Lavrov has since left. His spokesperson says he may return if there's enough progress, which suggests another long day tomorrow and no guarantee of success.

CORNISH: And in recent hours, we've been hearing this kind of downplaying of the date as an arbitrary deadline. Yes, it's self-imposed, but what happens if they don't make it?

KENYON: Well, American officials don't want to say at this point. But to be clear, they are saying there is an interim nuclear agreement now in place. Nothing changes with that on April 1, so there won't be any substantive change. That goes on until the end of June. But this deadline does seem to matter more to the Americans than anyone else. They say March 31 is when President Obama needs a status report. He needs to decide how to proceed. The Iranians, meanwhile, are hearing pretty much the opposite from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He says we don't need two deadlines. We've got one at the end of June. Let's stick to that.

The Americans would like to have some kind of agreement on the major points of a possible deal to show critics in Congress and elsewhere, and it could be a problem if they don't have that. But there's a lot of flexibility on what they could come out with here, so we'll just have to see.

CORNISH: If there any sense, though, of what the final sticking points might be?

KENYON: Those are usually described as R&D and sanctions. R&D is Iran's ability to develop equipment like centrifuges that enrich uranium. The focus seems to be on the latter years of any deal, the assumption being that the restrictions on Iran would be eased towards the end and it might get closer to having weapons capability in that time. And then on sanctions, Iran wants all UN sanctions dropped immediately. The international side says no, let's suspend them and hopefully put in what they like to call a snapback provision so they can put them back in place if Iran doesn't live up to its end of a bargain.

CORNISH: Peter, what's the atmosphere there like? I mean, you've got all these diplomats running around very kind of high-stakes, high-level talks.

KENYON: Well, I can tell you the very large Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel isn't big enough for this crowd. The Chinese were forced to take rooms at another hotel nearby. The growing media contingent is squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. There are long periods of waiting punctuated by bursts of activity as diplomats suddenly emerge. They develop catchphrases. John Kerry, the secretary of state, likes to say, working hard, working away. And those phrases then get shot around the cyber-sphere. And my colleague from The LA Times did a Nexis search that turned up the phrase, making progress, gaps remain, more than 365,000 times.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon covering the Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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