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Iran Nuclear Negotiators Face Monday Deadline

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Vienna, talks to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions are entering a final weekend before Monday's deadline. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Vienna, where there are growing signs that the negotiators may not be able to reach an agreement by then. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morning, Arun.

RATH: So what are the leading indications that the deadline won't be met?

KENYON: Well, basically the only people still saying we're not focusing on an extension - it's all about reaching a deal by Monday -are the negotiators themselves, and not even all of them. The foreign ministers of Britain and France, who are joining the talks today, are speaking about closing gaps and then extending the deadline. So we can't rule out an agreement by Monday, but it's looking less likely.

RATH: Now, it's not like the deadline is a surprise. They knew this was coming. What are you hearing about why they're still so far apart?

KENYON: Well, there seems to be a clear will on both sides to reach a deal, but one thing I'm hearing is that negotiators probably left too much to the very last minute. This is a classic pattern in high-stakes, all-or-nothing talks, of course. But one school of thought is that both sides started with pretty maximalist positions - didn't become clear until very late in the game which positions were real and which were bargaining tactics. And now they're left with the toughest issues - the size of Iran's uranium enrichment program and when to lift the toughest sanctions on Iran. And then there are numerous other issues that depend on the answers to those questions.

RATH: And now that they're down to these critical questions, what are you hearing from Tehran?

KENYON: Well, what's interesting there is what we're not hearing from Iranian hard-liners. The conservative media, hard-line politicians - they've all been very muted this week aiming what criticism they do have at Washington, not their own negotiators.

This is very different from what we heard in the run-up to the interim nuclear agreement last year in Geneva. So there seems to be a display of discipline, perhaps from the supreme leader, or maybe a desire to not be seen as the ones who caused the failure of what really is Iran's most important diplomatic effort in years.

RATH: And it seems like neither side wants to scuttle these talks completely. So what are the options if there's no agreement by Monday?

KENYON: Well, the optimistic version would be that they're so close that they just stay on and finish it. What seems more likely is extending the current interim agreement by anywhere from several weeks to a few more months. One wire service is already quoting an unnamed official as saying it might be extended until March. But the important thing to remember is that any extension would push these talks into difficult political waters. An incoming Republican Senate could vote for new sanctions in the U.S. that would probably unleash Iranian hard-liners. That could torpedo the talks. So negotiators will probably need some strong evidence of progress just to justify keeping the talks going.

You know, as experts have pointed out, this interim deal - the one that expires Monday - has been the most successful effort to rein in Iran's nuclear program in a decade, by far. But critics remain really opposed the idea of endlessly extending these partial steps. So the pressure to wrap up the talks, one way or the other, is only going to continue to grow.

RATH: Peter, Secretary of State John Kerry is taking this glass-half-full view that the two sides were so far apart - they've come so far in so little time. Does that perspective scan with you?

KENYON: Well, there's no question that there has been serious progress made, and they're being very circumspect about the actual details, trying to preserve the negotiations. But we're hearing on things like numbers of centrifuges, the heavy water plant at Arak, any number of issues. There are at least understandings in principle, and they have closed the gaps on some of the other issues. So there is definitely a reason to keep going from that point of view.

RATH: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Vienna covering the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Peter, thank you.

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