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Revival of the Iran nuclear deal appears far-off

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Another round of meetings to revive the Iran nuclear deal just wrapped up, and frustration seemed to be the underlying sentiment. European officials in the talks have said that Iran is wasting, quote, "precious time," warning that the 2015 pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, could turn into an empty shell. As a reminder, this was a deal where Iran would limit its nuclear program and open it up to inspections, and the U.S. and other countries would, in return, ease sanctions. The U.S. walked away in 2018 under then-President Trump. Iran responded by ramping up its nuclear program again. There have been attempts this year to put the talks back together, but they seem stalled, and now the U.S. says it's thinking about, quote, "alternatives" if a deal isn't reached. Journalist and political analyst Negar Mortazavi is joining us now to put this all into perspective. Welcome.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: How would you characterize the meetings and talks so far?

MORTAZAVI: So we're actually hearing some positive developments. On Friday, the European representative, Enrique Mora, had some upbeat commentary. He mentioned that they're having a positive working relationship with their Iranian partners. And he surprisingly also said that 80% of the draft text of the agreement to revive the JCPOA has been agreed upon.

DETROW: The U.S. has made it clear repeatedly - the Biden administration has made it clear this year that it wants to see Iran take the first steps to scale back the nuclear program that has been ramped up again in recent years, among other things. What does Iran want from the U.S.? And is Iran looking for the U.S. to take any first steps? Because, you know, as another reminder, it gets lost in the conversation sometimes stateside, the U.S. was the country that first left this deal.

MORTAZAVI: Since 2018, from the Iranian viewpoint, the U.S. is in complete violation of the deal. The Iranian waited for about a year. They continue to comply, and then they started reducing their compliance, meaning expanding their nuclear program, but making sure that first they stay inside the deal, which they still are. They never announce that they're leaving. And second, they have designed the expansion as steps that are completely reversible. So they're increasing - they are escalating basically their program as a way to gain leverage at the negotiating table to show the U.S. that, look, we want this deal, but we also have our own way of creating leverage against you.

DETROW: Right. And in recent weeks, the talk from the administration was these so-called alternatives that are being developed. If talks don't resume, if progress isn't made, how are you and other observers reading this euphemistic phrasing of alternatives?

MORTAZAVI: I think it's a combination of sanctions and also the threat of military escalation, which is putting the Biden administration in a weird position because everyone knows and they've publicly declared that they don't want a war with Iran. But then at the same time, if you want to project that you have the capability and the intent to do a necessary military escalation, that puts you in a weird position against your own base and the country and then also against the Iranians. So I think what we've seen over the Trump years is that maximum pressure and crippling sanctions didn't really bring any policy change in Iran. It inflicted pain on the Iranian public. The Iranian economy was very hard hit, especially during the pandemic, but it didn't bring any policy change in Iran's basic political direction. So more sanctions and this threat of military escalation is not really the ideal path forward. And we've also heard that from candidate Biden before he became president. So I'm just hoping that diplomacy one way or another will succeed and we won't have to be talking about the details of this Plan B.

DETROW: What are the things that you'll be looking for over the coming days and weeks? As much as they may leak out of the negotiation rooms to the outside, what are the key indicators that you'll be keeping an eye out for to give a sense of what direction these talks are moving in?

MORTAZAVI: Well, I think the Iranian side - because the hardliners of the Iranian political system want to project that they're not agreeing to what the previous team was going to agree to and sort of want to look tougher to their own domestic base but, at the same time, not escalate so much to completely lose a chance for a deal. The European Union right now is seen as more of an objective, you know, neutral party who is coordinating, who has supported these talks and is bringing everyone together. So I would be watching the mouth of Enrique Mora, the European Union representative, and I'm hoping to hear more positive news coming from him, which we did hear some on Friday. And I guess at the end of the day, if both sides want an agreement, if they want to revive diplomacy, they just have to make enough compromise to be able to meet somewhere halfway.

DETROW: All right, Negar Mortazavi, host of "The Iran Podcast," thanks so much for joining us.

MORTAZAVI: Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK'S "BUBBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.

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