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Biden Envoy To Iran On What To Expect In Renewed Nuclear Talks

Robert Malley, pictured in 2018, helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He's now involved in talks to potentially restart the deal, beginning this week in Vienna.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Robert Malley, pictured in 2018, helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He's now involved in talks to potentially restart the deal, beginning this week in Vienna.

The U.S. and Iran are holding indirect talks this week in Vienna over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Diplomats from the two countries won't meet face to face — representatives from Europe, Russia and China will serve as a go-between. Both the U.S. and Iran insist the other needs to make a concession first — Iran says the U.S. should lift sanctions, while the U.S. says Iran should scale back its nuclear program.

Robert Malley will be one of the people representing the U.S. in the talks. He tells Morning Edition that it's only a first step in a long and difficult process with the goal of bringing both countries back into compliance.

"This is going to involve discussions about identifying the steps that the U.S. has to take and identifying the steps that Iran is going to have to take," he says. "Because they've been increasingly in noncompliance with their nuclear commitments."

Former President Donald Trump broke off from the deal in 2018 and imposed punitive sanctions. Iran in turn began to enrich uranium to higher percentages than was allowed under the deal, getting slightly closer to making the radioactive fuel used in nuclear weapons.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says the sanctions imposed by Trump are illegal and that they must be removed before Iran changes its nuclear activities.

Malley, who is serving as a special envoy for the Biden administration, responds that "it's not going to work that way," telling NPR's Steve Inskeep that stance would mean Iran is "not serious" about rejoining the deal.

Malley helped negotiate the deal in 2015 when he served in the Obama National Security Council.

Here are excerpts from the interview, which have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How out of compliance is Iran at the moment?

Every day that goes by, they're more out of compliance because they have obviously increased their stockpile of enriched uranium. They are experimenting with centrifuges that are more advanced than the ones that they were supposed to be using, they have restricted the access of the International Atomic Energy Organization. So they are doing things that are out of compliance.

And, you know, President Biden has been clear during the campaign and since he's been in the Oval Office that the United States is prepared to come into compliance if Iran does. Unfortunately, ever since the president has been in office, Iran has moved further out of compliance.

Even before these negotiations began, there were groups who are opposed to resuming this nuclear agreement who've been taking out ads in papers and lobbying in different ways. Is there a case to be made for the status quo? It wasn't what you would have done had you been around during the Trump administration. But Iran is still sort of in the deal and it's also sanctioned and restricted in many ways.

Listen, we've had a real life experiment with this. The last three years the Trump administration tested the proposition that putting Iran under maximum pressure and telling it either it needs to come back and forget about the existing nuclear deal and agree to more stringent requirements, or else the pressure would continue.

Well, we've seen what happened. Iran expanded its nuclear program, is getting closer to, sort of, troubling levels of enriched uranium, troubling levels of advanced centrifuges, troubling restrictions on the verification and monitoring, the unprecedented verification that the nuclear deal provided. So, no, we've seen the result of the maximum pressure campaign. It has failed.

You're telling me that this situation gets a little more dangerous each day. Iran comes a little more out of compliance each day. Are we on a trend line where if nothing changes, ultimately there would be a war because the United States is committed never to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon?

I'm not going to go there. I am going to say that the United States under President Biden is committed to making sure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. We believe the best way to do that is through diplomacy.

Do you have any indication that there could be any bipartisan support? There wasn't for the last agreement.

You know, hope springs eternal. We'll work as closely as we can with Congress. And this is a very polarizing issue. We understand that. At the same time we've stated clearly it was what the president ran on — that we would come back into the deal if Iran resumed compliance and then work on it to achieve what I think every member of Congress has said he or she wants to achieve, which is a stronger, longer deal that meets U.S. core interests. But also would have to include further steps that Iran is looking for. And doing this in coordination with our regional allies, our regional partners.

This administration has set a goal for itself of a foreign policy that is in some way connected to Americans. How, if at all, could reentering this nuclear agreement help ordinary Americans?

It would not serve the interests of America or American citizens if there were growing tension in the Middle East because of an expanding Iranian nuclear program. So getting back into the deal is very much, in our estimation, in the interest of the United States and of its citizens.

So that the president and his team could focus on what really matters for the well-being of the American people and a return to an understanding that was working and which could serve as a platform to then get something even stronger for our benefit.

Critics of this deal have said what it did not include: limitations on Iranian missiles or Iran's activities in the region. What is something stronger that you could get in a follow-on agreement if you resume this agreement?

What we would pursue is, first of all, a longer agreement. Even though this one lasts quite some time and some of its provisions last forever, of course, it would be better, as in any arms control agreement, to see whether we could get a follow-on deal that extends the timelines. ...

And, you know, we have concerns about Iran's ballistic missile program. We have concerns about their activities in the region. We want to talk about all that. But we're much better off talking about all of that if we could at least put the current nuclear issue to the side and not have to worry every day about what the latest Iranian announcement will be.

Iran has its own presidential election coming up in June. Is it necessary for you to get any agreement started before that election?

It's not necessary. And we will negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran. And if we could reach an understanding before the elections, fine. And if we can't, we'll continue after that with whoever is in office in Tehran. So we can't ignore the reality of an election, but we can't let it dictate our pace either.

Lisa Weiner and Denise Couture produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.
Denise Couture