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For the first time in eight months, Iran's nuclear program is the focus of international talks, this time in Kazakhstan. Today, the Iranian government and international negotiators exchanged proposals that could pave the way for further progress. Western leaders are not predicting a breakthrough, but they say small steps could increase confidence. We'll have a report from the talks in a moment.
First, NPR's Tom Gjelten highlights some obstacles that stand in the way of a grand deal to resolve the nuclear issue.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In the lead-up to these talks, nobody offered hope of Iran abandoning all efforts to enrich uranium and the West, in exchange, removing all sanctions. The thought instead was that the gulf between the two sides might narrow a bit.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, says major progress is just too much to expect.
JEFFREY LEWIS: If you sat people down, they would tell you that in a perfect world they would love to work something out. But I think that there is so much mistrust and it is so hard to imagine a deal that at least for the foreseeable future, I just see stalemate.
GJELTEN: The United States and its allies have been thinking the pain of sanctions might compel the Iranian government to make concessions. So far, there's little sign of that. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week that Iran is installing more advanced centrifuge machines for enriching uranium.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, imagines Iran getting to the point where it could enrich uranium to weapons-grade purity and the world barely seeing it happen.
GARY MILHOLLIN: They're building up their capability to the point where they're going to get so close to the bomb that they're going to become a virtual nuclear weapons state.
GJELTEN: Even if sanctions don't affect the Iranians' decision making, trade restrictions, in theory, should make it more difficult for them to get the technology they need to develop their nuclear capability. But so far, that's not evident. Milhollin points to the sophisticated rotors used in the centrifuge.
MILHOLLIN: They're made out of carbon fiber and the technology for making them is controlled for export and it's rather demanding. But they're now deploying centrifuges that use that technology, so somehow they've managed to get around that.
GJELTEN: With a presidential election coming up in Iran in June and fierce infighting in the meantime, the political environment there does not favor compromise. Plus, the Iranians could look to North Korea's successful development of nuclear weapons and conclude that should they want to build a bomb, the world could not stop them either.
Iran and North Korea have already worked together in ballistic missile development. Now there are concerns this collaboration could extend to nuclear weapons research. Some reports placed Iranian scientists on scene at a recent nuclear weapon test in North Korea.
Lee Smith, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, thinks the two countries have good reason to join forces.
LEE SMITH: Both of these regimes have been heavily sanctioned and I think the cooperation allows them to skirt different problems.
GJELTEN: Much of this is speculation. Jeffrey Lewis, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, says even if Iranians watched the nuclear weapon test in North Korea, it wouldn't necessarily mean Iran is outsourcing nuclear weapons research to the North Koreans.
LEWIS: It's possible to invite people to tests. But simply being there to observe doesn't really pose a huge threat in and of itself. What's really interesting is the information that goes back and forth.
GJELTEN: But Western intelligence agencies don't know that much about what's going on in North Korea or Iran, or between the two countries. Not knowing, for example, whether there are secret enrichment sites in Iran, Western officials can't say for sure how long it would take the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon should they decide to do so.
For now, U.S. intelligence agencies are sticking with their assessment that Iran has not yet made that decision. If that's true, the world powers can continue to promote confidence-building steps that could ultimately lead to something bigger.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.