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

Apr 6, 2021
Originally published on April 6, 2021 8:12 am

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

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A U.S. envoy refers to some diplomacy today as an experiment. The United States and Iran begin talks on the U.S. rejoining a multinational agreement. The deal under President Obama limited Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. President Trump withdrew from that deal. Iran and other powers stayed in, but Iran protested by slowly going out of compliance with some of the terms. Now they try again.

Talks between the U.S. and Iran are always fraught, and the U.S. and Iranian diplomats will not be in the same room today. Instead, the Americans are in their own room in Vienna, Austria. Iranians will be in a different room. And the other world powers that are part of the deal - European nations, Russia and China - will have diplomats that shuttle back and forth. The people in the U.S. room include that U.S. envoy Rob Malley.

ROBERT MALLEY: The goal is to see whether we could identify those steps that Iran will need to take to come back into compliance with its nuclear commitments under the deal and identify the steps that the U.S. will have to take in terms of sanctions relief in order for it to be in compliance with the deal. That's the stated purpose of this first exercise, to see whether there could be a common ground found on those two sets of steps.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, Iran has publicly said, the way for this to work is for the United States to lift all of the new sanctions it has imposed over the last three years, and then Iran will be back in full compliance. Is that a nonstarter?

MALLEY: It's not going to work that way. I could - you know, certainly it's not something that's practical because 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 because they've been increasingly in noncompliance with their nuclear commitments. But hopefully, they will take a more realistic position once those talks begin.

INSKEEP: How out of compliance is Iran at the moment?

MALLEY: Well, 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's been clear from - 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.

INSKEEP: As you know, even before these negotiations began, there were groups who were 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, though? It wasn't what you wanted. 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 is also sanctioned and restricted in many ways.

MALLEY: Listen; we've had a real-life experiment with this. The last three years, we tested the proposition - or 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. It's getting closer to sort of, you know, 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 results of the maximum pressure campaign. It has failed.

INSKEEP: Suppose that nothing does change. I think 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?

MALLEY: Well, 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.

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

MALLEY: 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 think that we are - we've stated clearly it was the - 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, you know, further steps that Iran is looking for and doing this in coordination with our regional allies, our regional partners.

INSKEEP: This seems like a classic political foreign policy problem because you believe it is in the U.S. national interest to reenter this deal, but it is, as you know very well, a potential agreement with a country that a lot of Americans don't like, which makes it politically difficult. And I know this administration has set a goal for itself of a foreign policy that is in some way connected to Americans, connected to the middle class, where people can see what's in it for them. How, if at all, could reentering this nuclear agreement help ordinary Americans?

MALLEY: 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 mutual - for our benefit.

INSKEEP: That's an interesting point because, as you know, critics of this deal have said what it did not include. It didn't include limitations on Iranian missiles or Iran's activities in the region. What is the something stronger that you could get in a follow-on agreement if you resume this agreement?

MALLEY: Well, I mean, what we would pursue is, first of all, a longer agreement - in other words, one that lasts for - you know, this one lasts for 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.

INSKEEP: The ones that do expire, sure.

MALLEY: Yeah. 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.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that Iran has its own presidential election coming up in June - not a free election as we would define it, but it's an election, and they have politics, and they have their own domestic concerns. Is it necessary for you to get any agreement started before that election?

MALLEY: 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.

INSKEEP: Rob Malley, U.S. special envoy to Iran, will have an opportunity to communicate indirectly with Iranians this week. Thanks so much.

MALLEY: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: So that's a U.S. view. Now let's hear from the other side. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. He covers Iran and the nuclear deal, as he has for years. Peter, welcome back.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so we heard Rob Malley's view of addressing U.S. politics, as well as the diplomacy. How do Iranians view this potential U.S. rejoining of the deal?

KENYON: Well, Iran's got things that it wants, of course, most coming under the heading of fully rejoining the world economy - sell its oil, have full access to transactions that international banks actually process. And now what would actually be put on the table in any follow-on talks, that may depend on how things go this week and in the future. So that remains to be seen, to some extent.

INSKEEP: OK, so we're talking about the possibility of broadening this out with follow-on agreements. But what about just the basic idea of the U.S. rejoining and Iran coming back into full compliance? Is this something that Iranians think could be positive for them?

KENYON: Yes, that's what they want. It's what the Biden administration also wants. But it's not going to be easy. Iran at the moment is saying, look; the U.S. walked away from a deal we were abiding by. It was working. You don't have any place at the table until you officially rejoin and lift all the sanctions. So that's going to be their position for some time now. And it depends on whether the maximalist positions being taken by some get toned down, in part. I mean, there was a recent demand by Iran's supreme leader that once sanctions are lifted, Iran would then take as much time as it wants to verify that before doing anything on its own. And that's a real problem for the West.

So we'll have to see if these talks clarify the steps that actually are going to be taken to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which is really just a step towards what Washington really wants, which is this follow-on deal that would cover other issues.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting. And of course, we're talking about things that can sound silly to us from the outside, but it's a matter of power and also a matter of trust. Who goes first? In what order do things happen? These things are very important to the parties. Now, I want to ask this, Peter. I know that you've visited Iran a number of times. You're well aware that people in Iran, ordinary people, have a, surprisingly to some people, positive view of the United States. They were joyous in many cases that the nuclear deal was approved years ago. What are ordinary people, as best you can tell, thinking now about the prospect of being back in that agreement?

KENYON: Well, there's a lot of disillusionment that's happened. I mean, the whole atmosphere has changed between then and now - a lot of disappointment in the prospects that diplomacy can actually work with the U.S. Trump fulfilled all of the hard-liners in Iran's worst predictions when he pulled out and reimposed sanctions, and it's going to take some time before Iranians really trust the Americans again. It was a real boost for hard-liners. There's elections coming up, and the hard-liners are really trying to get that presidency back. So, yeah, it had a big effect.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. And one more note on how the U.S. and Iran approach these talks today in Vienna - the U.S. envoy, Rob Malley, told us he is a pess-optimist (ph), combining the words pessimist and optimist. Today, an Iranian government spokesman says his country is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. So in summary, the U.S. is both, and Iran is neither, and that's where things stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.