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The status of Iran nuclear deal talks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers have never gone smoothly, and that's been especially true in recent days. The war in Ukraine distracted the countries involved, just as it seemed a deal might be near, and Iran made a new demand - that the U.S. drop its terror designation of a powerful wing of Iran's military. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports the issue is putting years of diplomatic work to the test.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Biden administration still believes the 2015 nuclear agreement is worth restoring, as a means of ensuring that Iran doesn't acquire a nuclear weapon. But in New York, as the U.S. this month assumed the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that diplomacy is not the only avenue Washington is prepared to pursue.

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And we don't have an agreement just yet, and it's possible we might not get there. Of course, if diplomacy does not succeed, then we'll continue to work very closely with others in the international community to increase pressure on Iran.

KENYON: But Iran is applying pressure of its own, demanding that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, be taken off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. The IRGC supports militias around the region, but Iran's leaders see it as essential to protecting the revolutionary government in Tehran.

Sanam Vakil, an analyst with the London-based Chatham House think tank, says removing the foreign terrorist designation wouldn't make any practical difference in the tools the U.S. would have to deal with the IRGC, but it's symbolically important. And she says Tehran thinks now, with Washington focused on Russia's war in Ukraine, is a good time to press for any advantage it can get.

SANAM VAKIL: Tehran sees Biden as distracted with the war - rightly so - weakened at home in advance of the midterm elections and is very worried that 2024 will bring back President Trump and concern that the deal will only be a two-year deal rather than a more durable deal.

KENYON: Without a resolution to the IRGC question that both sides can live with, she adds, the odds against restoring the nuclear deal grow significantly. And even if it is restored and limits Iran's nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief, the agreement, known as the JCPOA, is unlikely to be seen by politicians on either side as a big victory.

VAKIL: And so politicians and policymakers in Iran are less willing to go out on a limb for what they see to be a weak JCPOA, and I think some of the same challenges exist in Washington.

KENYON: Henry Rome, Iran analyst at the Washington-based Eurasia Group, agrees that the odds of restoring the agreement have been going down in recent weeks. But he says both sides think it's worth saving.

HENRY ROME: I think a deal is still a bit more likely than not. I still see a lot of interest from the U.S. side and still some interest from the Iranian side in making this happen, but it's going to require a really concerted, creative, diplomatic effort to bridge this final issue here.

KENYON: Rome says U.S. regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, are highly critical of the deal's failure to address the actions of Iran and its proxy militias, and they would see a decision to lift the IRGC terrorist designation as a worrying signal about Washington's commitment to the region if and when the deal is restored. But in Tehran, he says, the designation is seen quite differently.

ROME: I think, from the Iranian government's point of view, the designation is a key part of the maximum pressure campaign that President Trump waged against Iran, and therefore that needs to go as well. So it's a tricky one.

KENYON: He says what Washington is looking for is a commitment from Iran to reduce its support for militias in the region. Rome also says it would be wrong to assume that the current stalemate can simply continue for weeks or months to come. It wouldn't take much, he says, to ratchet up tensions.

ROME: So I would expect, over the coming weeks, a lot of energetic efforts from intermediaries - especially the Europeans, but also regional states - to try to find some creative way around this.

KENYON: Meanwhile, Iran continues to enrich uranium to 60% purity, close to weapons-grade fuel.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.