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The latest effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration and other world powers have now spent a year and a half trying to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. The Trump administration abandoned the deal, prompting Iran to ramp up back once again its nuclear activity. In the last week, there's been a new flurry of activity around the talks, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Europeans, who have been mediating between the U.S. and Iran, put what they said was a final deal on the table last month. But neither side has given an outright yes. Iran described its latest proposal as constructive, but the U.S. called it, quote, "not constructive." Suzanne DiMaggio of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace supports the deal and is encouraging Iran to say yes.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: The U.S. and European sides believe the room for compromise has been exhausted, and they're insisting what's on the table is the most forward-leaning agreement possible. The Iranians' latest response continues to push the envelope.

KELEMEN: She says the Iranians are seeking more assurances that they will get sanctions relief that will last even if the next U.S. president decides to leave the deal again. The Iranians also want the International Atomic Energy Agency to close a probe into Iran's past secret nuclear activities. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre says Iran could clear that up by answering the IAEA's questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: The investigations are not political. They are not leverage or bargaining chips.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. is ready to come back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal as long as Iran does the same. That means the U.S. would ease up on sanctions and Iran would curb its nuclear program. Critics of the deal say Iran is trying to hide past activities and isn't negotiating in good faith. Here's how former national security adviser John Bolton put it recently.

JOHN BOLTON: I think experience with this regime is that the real negotiations start once the agreement's signed. And that's what's wrong with it. It's not fundamentally going to alter their direction because they have made no strategic decision to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

KELEMEN: The FBI says Iran plotted to assassinate Bolton likely in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general. Bolton and others say lifting sanctions would give Iran more money for that kind of activity. Proponents of the deal say that Iran is getting dangerously close to having enough material for a nuclear weapon, and it would be even more emboldened if it does. DiMaggio says tensions could get out of hand, noting that Israel may step up its efforts to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.

DIMAGGIO: I mean, you can see the escalation getting to a point that it would be difficult to be managed. And the U.S. could easily be sucked into a regional conflict we didn't start.

KELEMEN: This could be a fleeting moment to get a deal done with U.S. midterm elections looming and lots of domestic opposition to cutting any deal with Iran, especially on Capitol Hill. Timing is everything, DiMaggio says, and the Iranians should be very careful not to push the envelope too far. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THANK YOU MK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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