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Iran's Nuclear Talks: What To Expect Next

The next round of Iranian nuclear talks with world powers is fast approaching, and there's still a lot of skepticism in the air over the prospects for a comprehensive deal.

Iran will sit down with the U.S. and five other major powers in Vienna on Feb. 18 as they try to hammer out a long-term agreement on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. By most every estimate, it won't be easy to build on the success of a temporary deal drawn up last November given the lingering, visceral mistrust between the United States and Iran.

Those feelings were on display at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, where officials from both countries lobbed accusations at one another.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who spoke to the conference about the future of the Middle East, accused the Iranians of repeatedly lying and cheating when it comes to their nuclear program.

"Our beloved Ronald Reagan used to say: 'Trust, but verify,'" McCain said. "Well in the case of Iran, don't trust and verify.

He said this is why he expects Congress to impose more sanctions if the talks with Iran drag on for more than six months. But he suggested waiting that long may be a mistake.

"There are three components to nuclear weapons – warhead, delivery system and the material itself," McCain said. "They are achieving the first two without any restraints whatsoever."

While the precise details of Iran's program are still fuzzy, McCain expressed the view of those who are deeply suspicious of Iran's intentions.

Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, like generating electricity. But several intelligence agencies around the world concluded Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons up until around the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

He told the conference that Iran may have had a weapons program because it — like many countries — was concerned that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was working on nuclear weapons. That suspicion turned out to be unfounded.

Still, "at some point in time it would be good for Iran to come clean on what happened in the past," Bildt said.

Yukiya Amano, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, also called for Iran to be more transparent about its undeclared nuclear facilities and activities, especially those with military applications.

"There has been positive and encouraging movement, but much more needs to be done," he told the conference.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country is ready to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement concerning his country's nuclear program that benefits both sides.

But he added it's a mistake to think the West has a "monopoly on mistrust."

"Iranians believe with good reason that the West wants to deprive Iran of its ability to have access to technology," he told the conference. "How can you gain the trust of Iranian people when we know we have an American built research reactor in Tehran and since 1991, we have had to go around begging for the fuel for that reactor?

"We are not a country that begs. We will never do that," he added. So "we went to our own scientists and we produced that fuel."

Zarif, who met with Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the Munich conference, also blamed sanctions for Iran's decision to build 18,800 centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.