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Biden envoy makes the case for Iran nuclear deal as prospects fade

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, speaks at the Doha Forum in Doha, Qatar, in March. Malley will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on May 25. (Lujain Jo/AP)
6 min

Saying he was “not particularly optimistic, to put it mildly,” of success in the year-long negotiations over reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, the Biden administration’s envoy to the talks insisted Wednesday that ongoing diplomacy remains the best option for U.S. national security.

“The military option cannot resolve this issue” and prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Robert Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There is no military response … we’ve heard this repeatedly,” including from Israel, he said. “The only option here is the diplomatic one.”

The hearing was the first extended public presentation by the administration since the stalemated talks were suspended in March. While several Democrats urged the administration to continue negotiations, several others joined most Republicans in questioning the value of continuing the talks.

The administration said in February that if an agreement were not reached “within the next few weeks,” Iranian nuclear advances would “make it impossible” to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the Barack Obama-era deal is known.

“It’s late May,” committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted. “If Iran were to break out tomorrow,” with enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb, “what is the United States prepared to do?” he asked. “We want to hear U.S. plans to enforce sanctions already in place … plans in detail for what the administration is prepared to do to stop the growing oil trade between Iran and China … to bring home Americans wrongfully detained in Iran.”

The United States “must back up President Biden’s statement that ‘Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch,’” Menendez said.

Iran nuclear talks at stalemate over terrorism issue

Malley acknowledged that, in addition to expanding its nuclear program, Iran has increased its other destabilizing activities in the region, including support for proxy militias, development of its ballistic missile program and attacks against U.S. and other forces in the Middle East. But, he said, “it is much safer to negotiate” those issues “when we know the nuclear program is under control.”

Since April 2021, the United States has negotiated indirectly with Iran through the three European parties — Britain, Germany and France — to the original agreement, which sharply limited Iran’s ability to produce and retain the enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for lifting U.S. “nuclear-related” sanctions against it. Signers Russia and China have also participated in the negotiations, held in Vienna, to return to the agreement from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018.

After the withdrawal, Trump embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, reimposing sanctions that had been lifted and adding about 1,600 more, while Iran increased the quantity and quality of its enriched uranium production far beyond the JCPOA limits.

Under the terms of a new agreement, Iran would return to the 2015 restrictions on the size and scope of its nuclear program, and the United States would lift “nuclear-related” sanctions against it, while other sanctions would remain.

But negotiations were suspended in March, according to U.S. and European officials, when Iran demanded that the United States also lift its 2019 designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, as a foreign terrorist organization.

The Biden administration has not announced a decision in response to the Iranian demand. But Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in statements Tuesday on Twitter, said that Biden had confirmed to him in a telephone call late last month that he would “keep … the IRGC” on the list, “which is where it belongs.”

In a tweet, Bennett thanked Biden “for this principled decision, and for being a true friend of Israel.”

Since the talks were suspended, the European Union negotiators, who serve as coordinators for the negotiations, have traveled back and forth between Tehran and Washington trying to fashion a way out of the stalemate. Chief E.U. negotiator Enrique Mora and the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, both issued mildly positive statements after visits to the Iranian capital this month.

In a lengthy prepared statement, Malley acknowledged that there are “strongly held competing views” in Congress about the deal. Last month, a bipartisan supermajority of the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution insisting there be no delisting of the IRGC, and that any nuclear deal also address Iranian support for terrorism in the region.

Repeating familiar administration talking points, Malley said that the negotiations were always limited to Iran’s nuclear program, with the hope that an agreement would lead to further discussions about Iran’s other activities, including terrorism, support for proxy forces in the region and development of ballistic missiles.

“To the extent that there is a disagreement in this room,” he told lawmakers, “it boils down to this: are we better off reviving the nuclear deal and, in parallel, using all other tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic and otherwise — to address Iran’s destabilizing policies? Or are we better off getting rid of the deal and banking on a policy of pressure alone to get Iran to accept more onerous nuclear constraints and curb its aggressive” practices.

“We have gone through several years of a real-life experiment in the very policy approach critics of the JCPOA advocated: a so-called maximum pressure policy, designed to strangle revenue for the Iranian regime, in hopes of getting Iran to accept far greater nuclear restrictions and engage in far less aggressive behavior,” Malley said.

“Many of us strongly disagreed with this policy at the time, but we could of course not prove that it would fail. That was then. This is now. Then we predicted, now we know.”

Gulf Arab states that opposed the Iran nuclear deal are now courting Tehran

In response to questions, he repeated the administration’s pledge to submit any new deal to congressional review, while declining appeals to make it a treaty that would be subject to Senate approval.

Malley’s testimony was followed by that of Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading critic of U.S. reentry into the nuclear deal. In his prepared remarks, Dubowitz said that reinstated sunset clauses in the original agreement — to be retained in a revived deal — would lift many of the nuclear restrictions it imposes on Iran within a handful of years, and the removal of nuclear-related sanctions would provide Iran with $275 billion in sanctions relief during the first year, and $800 billion in five years.

Malley called those figures “wildly exaggerated compared to what our intelligence believes.” He said that removal of current sanctions on Iranian oil exports would bring Iran “about $5 billion a month at current prices.” China is the largest current purchaser of Iranian oil, in violation of U.S. sanctions.