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U.S. And Iran Officials To Meet In Vienna, Potentially Discuss Nuclear Deal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Will the U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal? And if so, how? There's a meeting about that in Vienna next week. The original deal was negotiated while Joe Biden was vice president. President Trump scrapped the agreement. Now President Biden wants to revive it. We're joined now by Negar Mortazavi, a journalist and analyst. Thanks so much for being with us.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: The original Iran deal placed tough but temporary limits on Iran's nuclear program. In exchange, U.S. and international sanctions were lifted. Will the discussions next week aim to return to that as if nothing happened?

MORTAZAVI: Well, it's something that the Iranians expected, to basically return to the existing deal. I must say that not all the limits are temporary, actually. Some of them are going to continue indefinitely on Iran's nuclear program. Basically, the goal is to ensure that the program stays a civil program and that it never turns into a nuclear weapons program. And it's something that the Iranian side had wanted to return to. They stayed in the deal when the Trump administration left. And it seems like it's something the Biden administration wants to also return to.

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand how important it is for Iran to have sanctions lifted.

MORTAZAVI: Well, the economy has been devastated by sanctions - crippling sanctions, as they call them - imposed by the Trump administration. The Trump administration basically called this a campaign of maximum pressure. And it really was - has been maximum pressure, mostly on the Iranian people, actually, not so much on the Iranian state. And add to that a new layer, which is the pandemic. Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East. It was one of the first countries after China to get the virus. And the combination of these sanctions and the pandemic has just devastated the economy. And it's something that many, many Iranians are really very much looking forward to - the sanctions relief.

SIMON: At the same time, what kind of agreement can the Iranian government come to that'll satisfy some of the hard-liners in the regime?

MORTAZAVI: Well, it seems like the hard-liners will be in line if a return to the JCPOA as it existed - existing deal - if a return to JCPOA is something that the two sides can agree on. Right now, the disagreement is on the technicality or the sequence of how a return to the deal should happen. But as far as going back to the deal, it seems like both sides, the Biden administration and also the high echelons of power in Iran, agree on to return to the existing deal. And then after that, there's interest, at least in Washington, to continue negotiations on other issues, which I think will be complicated. But it's not something that the Iranian side has completely said no to.

SIMON: And there's a presidential election coming up in Iran, too, right?

MORTAZAVI: Yes, in June. And that will be a game-changer because it will be the end of the current president, the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. And there's a very high chance that a hard-liner may become president of Iran, which will make, you know, negotiations, any kind of agreement more difficult with the United States.

SIMON: So any meeting they have in Vienna has to take into account the fact they don't know who's going to be running the Iranian government in just a couple months.

MORTAZAVI: Well, that is true. But because the supreme leader in Iran, which is the top person in power, will remain in power, and the president is essentially not the No. 1 person like here in the U.S., I think there will be continuity. At least on the Iranian side, we saw that even after President Trump pulled out of the deal, the Iranians stuck to their end of the deal. So I think there will be continuity if both sides agree on a framework to return to the deal as far as the JCPOA. I'm not so much worried about Iran pulling out of the deal if the United States stays in the deal, even with a change of presidency in Tehran.

SIMON: Negar Mortazavi is the host of "The Iran Podcast." Thanks so much for being with us.

MORTAZAVI: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.